Grammar for Authors: All About Pronouns

Pronouns are everywhere. Sometimes they’re overused. Sometimes they’re misused. And sometimes they’re just plain confusing.

We talked briefly about pronouns in the basics post, but today we’re dedicating an entire post just to them.

Before we get into more detail, I encourage you to look back at that first post. The definitions of pronouns, along with basic pronoun case, are at the end of the post. In the interest of time, I’m going to assume that you already are familiar with these concepts before reading this article.

General Disclaimer: While I love grammar, I’m also new at learning it. I will do my best to explain things correctly. If you find that I’ve misunderstood or misrepresented something, please share that in the comments. Please do so kindly, though. The goal of this is for all of us to learn and become better writers, and people learn better from kindness than troll-ness.

Reflexive Pronouns

Aside from the three pronoun cases, we also use reflexive pronouns.

Definition: Reflexive pronouns end in -self or -selves and are used when the subject and object pronouns are the same.

In these examples, the subject/object will be bold, and the reflexive pronoun will also be italicized.

  • Beth cried quietly to herself while she watched End Game.
  • Captain America won himself Beth’s unfailing loyalty.
  • The Monday after End Game came out, Beth and her coworkers who had seen the movie whispered among themselves about their many feels.

Note: Please, please do not use reflexive pronouns as subjects in a sentence or as part of a compound subject.

However, you may use a reflexive pronoun to add emphasis—as long as the reflexive pronoun can be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence.

  • Kyle tamed a dragon himself.
  • They formatted that anthology all by themselves.

Relative Pronouns

Definition: Relative pronouns are pronouns used to connect ideas (usually clauses) together in a sentence.

In English, the relative pronouns are who, whom, whose, that, and which. Who, whom, whose, and that can refer to people, but which cannot refer to a person. (Indeed, most of the time we try to avoid using that in reference to a person, as well.)

Whose, that, and which can refer to things. We only use who or whom to refer to things if we’re being anthropomorphic.

In the examples, the connected clauses are italicized, and the relative pronouns are in blue.

Who v. Whom

Who and whom deserve extra attention, as they seem to be particularly troublesome. You can decide which one to use simply based on the pronoun’s case. Who is a nominative pronoun; whom is an objective pronoun. You can substitute who for any of the pronouns in the nominative column and whom for any in the objective column:

Pronoun Number

Definition: Pronoun number refers to whether the pronoun is singular or plural.

The following words, plus their alternate cases, are either singular or plural:

If your noun or pronoun is singular, you must use a singular verb with it. If your noun or pronoun is plural, you must use a plural verb with it.

Here, the pronoun is bolded and the verb is italicized.

  • Each writer spends hours in revision.
  • Though anybody who sits on that chair can get comfortable, not everyone does.
  • Either student knows the answer.
  • Both students know the answer.
  • None of the tea was left. (tea is a singular thing, so “none” is singular)
  • None of the marbles were round. (marbles are viewed as distinct things, not collective, so “none” is plural)

In all honesty, pronoun number, particularly with indefinite pronouns, gets tricky at times. We may dedicate a whole post to that in the future.

Pronoun Antecedent Agreement

I just realized we haven’t talked about antecedents before. I could go into the etymology, but simply put: an antecedent is the noun that a pronoun refers to or replaces.

Examples (the antecedent will be bolded, the pronoun will be italicized):

  • Frodo wouldn’t have gotten far without his Sam. (his is the pronoun, Frodo is the antecedent)
  • I am talking about the character who rescued Elaine.
  • Robin was an outlaw. He robbed the rich to feed the poor.
  • In my novel, Rai and Savi reminisced about their past.

In the latter example, the subject (Rai and Savi) was compound. Compound subjects, because they are more than one noun, take a plural pronoun because of the rule of pronoun-antecedent agreement.

Definition: The number of the pronoun must equal the number of the antecedent. In other words, plural antecedents need plural pronouns, and singular antecedents need singular pronouns.

Collective nouns (nouns which refer to multiple people who are considered one entity) take singular pronouns.

  • The team played its heart out during the game.
  • After hearing and discussing the evidence, the jury gave its verdict.
  • The Fellowship took its path from Rivendell.

A note on style: Please use pronouns sparingly. When too many pronouns are sprinkled in, the antecedent may become unclear. You might be talking about the hero while your readers think you’re talking about the villain.

Even if the antecedent is clear, it’s still unwise to use too many pronouns in a row. Sprinkle in your character’s name from time to time. Names help us feel more connected to the character. It’s a small thing, but using too many pronouns may add more emotional distance between your reader and your characters.

That is all for today! Let me know your pronoun questions in the comments. If you found this helpful, please like and share with others.

As far as other news:

  • “Irellia the Night Walker” came out last month! It’s available via online retailers.
  • The next Story Time will be this Saturday (May 11th). Join me at 11 am PDT on Instagram @beth_wangler to keep reading The Weavers’ Blessing!

4 thoughts on “Grammar for Authors: All About Pronouns

  1. I enjoy your grammar with Beth posts! This was interesting. I’m pretty good at grammar, but who vs. whom still trips me up from time to time. I find that my intuitive use of grammar is better than my ability to explain it… which was rough when I had to teach it!!! :)

    Also, I tagged you for a Behind the Blogger Book Tag, though of course, no pressure to actually do it!

    1. Thank you, Jenelle! I sympathize about the intuitive use of grammar. Teaching grammar is what actually started me on the journey of writing this series! I’ve learned far more from teaching than from school, haha.

      Thank you for the tag! I would love to participate!

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