Skip to main content

Using Pronouns Clearly

OWL logo

Welcome to the Purdue OWL

This page is brought to you by the OWL at Purdue University. When printing this page, you must include the entire legal notice.

Copyright ©1995-2018 by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, reproduced, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our terms and conditions of fair use.

Because a pronoun REFERS to a noun or TAKES THE PLACE OF that noun, you have to use the correct pronoun so that your reader clearly understands which noun your pronoun is referring to.

Therefore, pronouns should:

1. Agree in number

If the pronoun takes the place of a singular noun, you have to use a singular pronoun.

INCORRECT: The girls brought her umbrella.
CORRECT: The girls brought their umbrella.

NOTE: Some find the construction "his or her" wordy, so if it is possible to use a plural noun as your antecedent and thus use "they" as your pronoun, it may be wise to do so. If you do use a singular noun and the context makes the gender clear, then it is permissible to use just "his" or "her" rather than "his or her."

NOTE ALSO: Recently, the use of "they" and "their" as singular pronouns has become more popular. This is due in part to the awkwardness of workarounds like "his or her" and in part to a broader cultural recognition that not all individuals identify themselves with the words "he" or "she." In fact, several official citation resources (including the the Associated Press and the Chicago Manual of Style) now include guidance on this kind of usage. See the OWL's page on the singular "they" for more information.

2. Agree in person

If you are writing in the first person (I), don't confuse your reader by switching to the second person (you) or third person (he, she, they, it, etc.). Similarly, if you are using the second person, don't switch to first or third.

INCORRECT: When a person comes to class, you should have your homework ready.
CORRECT: When a person comes to class, he or she should have his or her homework ready.

3. Refer clearly to a specific noun.

Don't be vague or ambiguous.

INCORRECT: Although the motorcycle hit the tree, it was not damaged.

(Is "it" the motorcycle or the tree?)

INCORRECT: I don't think they should show violence on TV.

(Who are "they"?)

INCORRECT: Vacation is coming soon, which is nice.

(What is nice, the vacation or the fact that it is coming soon?)

INCORRECT: George worked in a national forest last summer. This may be his life's work.

(What word does "this" refer to?)

INCORRECT: If you put this sheet in your notebook, you can refer to it.

(What does "it" refer to, the sheet or your notebook?)