Pronouns can cause errors in a surprisingly wide variety of ways
DEFINITION OF PRONOUNS
Pronouns typically allow noun meanings to be repeated without repetition of the noun itself (for some uses of repetition, see 5. Repetition with Synonyms and 24. Good and Bad Repetition). As a result, pronouns do not stand for a constant idea as nouns do, but change their meaning according to the noun they are with. The pronoun it, for example, may mean a flower in one place and a belief in another; and when the word I is used by me, it will mean me, but when somebody else uses it, it will mean them.
The above definition is simple but unfortunately not wholly accurate. Sometimes pronouns do not stand for nouns, and sometimes they do not repeat anything. Consider the following use of this:
(a) I say this: prices will have to fall.
This here stands not for a noun, but for a whole statement, and it comes before what it represents instead of after, so that it is not exactly repeating anything. A similar pre-noun use is possible with it and what (see 103. Postponed Subjects in “It” Sentences and 145. Highlighting with “What” Sentences), while I usually corresponds to no other neighbouring meaning at all – we know who it is by looking at the speaker or the writer’s name.
Note also that some words with a pronoun use can also be used like adjectives, with a noun placed directly after them. Technically they are then called “determiners” (see 110. Nouns Without “the” or “a”). One example is this in (a), which can have a noun like warning directly after it. Others include all, any, each, enough, his, one, other, that and what (for more on other, see 133. Confusions of Similar Structures 1). Pronouns that cannot become determiners include mine, theirs, him, who, everybody, none and words ending in -self.
Pronoun spellings are not unusual in sometimes being usable as another type of word. The spelling of the verb empty, for example, is also usable as an adjective or noun (see 66. Types of Passive Verb Meaning), the adjective spelling early can also be an adverb (see 120. Six Things to Know about Adverbs), and the preposition spelling before can also be a conjunction (see 84. Seven Things to Know about Prepositions).
COMMON PRONOUN ERRORS
There are five common pronoun errors that I wish to deal with here (for more, click on “Pronouns” in the CATEGORIES menu to the right of this page):
1. Confusing it and this.
2. Using this with unclear meaning.
3. Using which with unclear meaning.
4. Using a pronoun for a faraway noun.
5. Breaking agreement rules.
ERROR 1: CONFUSING it AND this
Sometimes we must repeat the meaning of an earlier noun with the pronoun it (or its plural they/them) and sometimes we must use this (or these) instead. The choice is mostly made according to where in the previous sentence the original noun occurs. The rule is basically that it/they repeats the subject of the previous sentence, while this/these repeats any other noun. Compare:
(b) Many different factors influence people when they buy commodities. They can each be represented by a letter.
(c) People buying commodities are influenced by many different factors. These can each be represented by a letter.
Example (b) has they because the repeated meaning (factors) is the subject of the previous verb influence. However, in (c) factors is not the subject of its verb, so it is repeated with these and not they. If they was used, the reader might well understand it to mean people instead of factors.
Two other uses of this are repetition of an entire preceding statement and repetition of a heading or title. The first may be illustrated by replacing the second sentence of (c) above with a sentence like This affects the way goods are marketed. Note that these is rarely possible in such sentences, even after all. The use of this after a heading may be illustrated thus:
(d) Pronouns: these are referring words.
It would be incorrect to use they here instead of these.
ERROR 2: USING this WITH UNCLEAR MEANING
Because this can stand for any part of a previous sentence except its subject, there is quite often a danger that the reader will see more than one possibility and be confused about which is the right one. Here is an example:
(e) Clearing forests reduces the total amount of rainfall in an area. This affects agriculture.
The problem in this example is whether this stands for rainfall or area or all of reduces the total amount of rainfall in an area. Understanding this to mean area is unlikely, I admit, because most people’s knowledge of the world (their “common sense”) tells them that that meaning does not fit; but deciding between the other two might be a problem for some.
The advice when beginning any sentence with this is to consider adding a following noun. If the noun before this is a single word like rainfall, the noun following this will have to be either the same word again (not all repetition is bad – see 24. Good and Bad Repetition) or a synonym like watering. If, on the other hand, this represents a longer phrase, a generalising noun should be found, e.g. this effect or this process. Of course, this with a noun after it will become an adjective instead of a pronoun. There is an exercise at the end of this post which provides practice in choosing and using this with a generalizing noun.
ERROR 3: USING which WITH UNCLEAR MEANING
Which (non-questioning) is one type of “relative” pronoun (others are who, whom and that). The error of unclear meaning is not the only one with this kind of word (common in many coursebooks is the well-known one of adding an extra pronoun, so that the meaning is repeated). An unclear meaning is likely to occur when the relative pronoun does not refer to the last previous noun (or the entire statement containing it – see 69. How Computers Get Grammar Wrong 2). Sometimes the meaning can still be clear in this situation, e.g.:
(f) Drink water from a well, which tastes better.
The which here obviously stands for water, even though it is not the last previous noun, because we taste water, not wells. Common sense ensures that there is no uncertainty about what which stands for.
The real problem comes when common sense cannot help in this way. Consider this:
(g) Alloys are mixtures of elements which have metallic properties.
Is it the mixtures or the elements that have metallic properties? This is an important question because different answers cause the set of possible alloys to be different. If the metallic properties need to belong only to mixtures, then conceivably we could include non-metallic elements in an alloy, provided only that the result was metallic.
Although a reader with good scientific knowledge would extract the correct meaning, that which does indeed stand for mixtures rather than elements, ordinary readers could not be expected to know that. For them, sentence (g) would be unclear. How can it be improved? One way – rather specific to this example – is to change alloys into the generalizing singular an alloy:
(h) An alloy is a mixture of elements which has metallic properties.
Beginning in this way necessitates the singular a mixture instead of mixtures, leading to the verb after which becoming has instead of have. Now the reader will know that the metallic properties belong to the mixture rather than the elements, since the plural word elements would require the verb have. Another way to make the right meaning clear is to place mixtures immediately before which, like this:
(i) Alloys are elements forming mixtures which have metallic properties.
Changing the word order like this is more often the best strategy when you suspect that the meaning of which might not be clear.
ERROR 4: USING A PRONOUN FOR A FARAWAY NOUN
Sometimes the noun that we want a pronoun to represent is not in the sentence before, but in the one before that, or even further back. In these cases it is better to repeat the noun. The problem with faraway original nouns is that the reader has to remember what they are – and the further away they are, the harder the remembering becomes. Faraway nouns also increase the number of possible alternative nouns that the pronoun might stand for, making the reader more likely to match the pronoun with the wrong noun.
Similar to pronouns representing faraway nouns are pronouns at the start of a paragraph. New paragraphs create as much of a separation of ideas as distance does. The advice, then, is to avoid using pronouns in the first sentence of a paragraph.
ERROR 5: BREAKING AGREEMENT RULES
Some pronouns have different forms for different types of noun that they represent. The main pronoun variations are as follows:
SINGULAR vs PLURAL FORMS
I – we
me – us
mine – ours
he/she/it – they
him/her/it – them
-self – -selves
his/hers/its – theirs
this – these
that – those
one – ones.
MALE vs FEMALE vs NON-HUMAN FORMS
he – she – it
him – her – it
his – her(s) – its
himself – herself – itself
SPEAKER vs NON-SPEAKER FORMS
I – you/he/she/it/one
we – you/they
me – you/him/her/it
us – you/them
myself – yourself/himself/herself/itself
It is especially easy to choose the wrong pronoun when the choice is between singular and plural. The commonest errors occur with it, they and them. Here is a typical error:
(j) *It is important when using pronouns to put it into the correct form.
The underlined pronoun, singular it, should of course be the plural them because it stands for a plural noun pronouns. The best advice for avoiding this error is to pause before writing it, they or them, and to look consciously for the noun it represents in order to check whether a singular or a plural form is needed.
The following exercise, which focuses on this with a generalizing noun, is taken from my book Grammar Practice for Professional Writing.
EXERCISE: Find a combination of this (or these) plus a generalizing noun that could fit into each space below. Your nouns should generalize words in the sentence before that are written in bold letters. The first has been done as an example.
1. Young people who have grown up without proper parental care are more likely to become criminals, take drugs and suffer failed relationships. However, this outcome is avoided if antisocial behaviour is treated with a loving rather than punitive response.
2. An overhead projector enables a presenter to show complex visuals that have been prepared in advance. However ________ _________ is lost if the electricity supply is unreliable.
3. Tourist entry visas for this country are not at all difficult or expensive to obtain. ________ _________ reflects the government’s need for more visitors and the foreign currency that they bring.
4. In 1914 the major European powers were strongly competing for overseas colonies, and they had formed a network of international alliances to protect their interests. ________ ________ help to explain why war broke out that year.
5. Significant improvements in international transport and communications mean that the number of people interested in the football World Cup and keen to travel to the host country has grown dramatically. However, the availability of tickets has remained roughly constant, with the result that they can now be sold over the Internet at astonishingly increased prices. _______ _________ illustrates the strong influence of supply and demand on prices.
6. British tourists like to be out in hot, sunny weather, they often choose food that is cooked in a very simple way, and they are unwilling to learn even a few words of any foreign language. ________ _________ make them easily recognisable when they are on holiday abroad.
7. A refrigerator works by pumping a special gas through a narrow tube that passes both inside and outside the cooling space. Whilst inside this space, the gas is pressurized so much that it condenses, taking heat from its surrounds. When it passes to the outside, it is changed back into gas, thus releasing the previously-collected heat. _______ _________ continues until the temperature inside falls to the required level.
8. Yip (1994) cites a Chinese learner of English who professed amazement at the previously unheard-of idea that the subject of an active verb might receive rather than cause the action of the verb, and whose verb form accuracy rapidly improved after this usage had been highlighted. _______ _________ suggests that incomplete information about the English voice system can cause unnecessary confusion, and that there is value in providing more complete descriptions.
9. Women in employment tend to have fewer children because usually they attach great importance to keeping their job and they are affluent enough to resist the pressures that force poorer women to have large families. ________ _________ clarify the link between economic growth and population decline.
ANSWERS (other choices may also be possible): 2 = this advantage; 3 = this policy; 4 = these developments; 5 = this situation; 6 = these characteristics; 7 = this process; 8 = this evidence; 9 = these reasons.