By Geraldine Woods

Pronouns take the place of nouns and frequently come in handy. Who can write a paragraph without I, me, ours, them, us, that, and similar words? Unfortunately, pronouns can trip you up in a hundred ways, especially when you’re matching them to their antecedents, the words they replace or refer to. You must follow two basic rules:

  • Replace a singular noun with a singular pronoun.
  • Replace a plural noun with a plural pronoun.

Pronouns have another characteristic — gender. The rules governing pronoun gender have become more complicated in recent years, as has the topic of gender itself. Traditionally, masculine pronouns (he, him, himself) take the place of masculine nouns, and feminine pronouns (she, her, herself) fill in for feminine nouns. Some pronouns (it, itself, who, they, which, and that, for example) function in a neutral way — mostly. Because traditional, formal English has no gender-neutral singular form for people, many people employ they/them/their/theirs as singular words. Your own beliefs about gender and those of your reader or listener must guide you to a decision about whether to write his or her, for example, or their when you traditionally need a singular pronoun.

Here are the most common singular and plural pronouns. Following tradition, they, them, their, and theirs are placed in the plural slot:

  • Singular: I, me, you, he, she, it, my, your, his, her, its, myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, either, neither, everyone, anyone, someone, no one, everything, anything, something, nothing, everybody, anybody, somebody, nobody, and each
  • Plural: we, us, you, they, them, our, ours, your, yours, their, theirs, ourselves, yourselves, themselves, both, and few

When a pronoun shows possession, it never contains an apostrophe. Some possessive pronouns attach to nouns (my, your, her, its, our, their), and others take the place of nouns (mine, yours, hers, ours, theirs). One pronoun, his, can function either way.

The -self pronouns — myself, himself, and so on — have very limited usage. They can add emphasis (“I myself will blow up the mud balloon”) or circle back to the person doing the action in the sentence (“She will clean herself later”). Resist the temptation to use a -self pronoun without the circling-back action (“Rachel and myself hate mud balloons,” for example).

Practice questions

Okay, get to work. Without peeking at the answers, decide which pronoun may replace the underlined noun. Consider the singular/plural and gender issues.

  1. Eileen wore a plaid hat last year, and the hat made quite an impression on the fashion press.
  2. After Eileen’s subway experience, Eileen opted for the bus.

Answers to practice questions

  1. it. The hat is singular, and so is it.
  2. she. The singular, feminine Eileen calls for a singular, feminine pronoun, in this case, she.