Using pronouns

Pronouns are words that replace nouns so that you don’t need to repeat the same noun several times in a text (e.g. ‘The computer started up but then it crashed because it is old’ not ‘The computer started up but then the computer crashed because the computer is old’.). To use pronouns correctly in your writing, you will need to understand how to:

Grammar checkers will not help at all with getting your noun-pronoun matches correct. It takes the human eye to locate the pronoun and then go back to the noun or noun group to make sure that there is a correct match in number, person and gender. It can signal incorrect grammatical use of a pronoun, but this is not always consistent.

Use correct pronouns in sentences

Types of pronouns
Type Examples
personal pronouns I, me, mine, you, your, yours, he, him, his, she, her, hers, it, one, we, they
relative pronouns who, whom, whose, which, that
interrogative pronouns who, what, when, where, why
indefinite pronouns someone, somebody, something, anyone, anybody, anything, everyone, no one
demonstrative pronouns this, that, these, those
reflexive pronouns myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves
Personal pronouns change case in sentences.
Person/Number Pronouns as subjects Pronouns as objects Pronouns for possession 
 1st person singular  I me my, mine
 2nd person singular you you your, yours
 3rd person singular he, she, it him, her, it his, her, hers, its
 1st person plural we us our, ours
 2nd person plural you you your, yours
 3rd person plural they them their, theirs

Personal pronouns change form depending on the role they play in sentences/’case’ (e.g. whether they are the subject, the object or showing ownership). While you are discouraged from using first and second person pronouns in your academic writing, you need to learn how to use ‘case’ correctly in your oral and written language.

Use the correct pronoun for subjects, objects and possessive case.

Pronoun as subject

INCORRECT: Us students are learning how to do word processing for essay writing.

CORRECT: We students are learning how to do word processing for essay writing.

INCORRECT: Me and the other students are studying.

CORRECT: The other students and I are studying.

Pronoun as object

INCORRECT: The excellence award recognised she and the team.

CORRECT: The excellence award recognised the team and her.

INCORRECT: The choice of program was between them and I.

CORRECT: The choice of program was between them and me.

Pronoun for possession

INCORRECT: The computer and programs are yourselves.

CORRECT: The computer and programs are yours.

Use the correct case for relative pronouns ‘who’, ‘whom’, ‘whose’

Pronoun as subject

Students will train with the computer programmers who work in IT.

Students who work with their computer skills find online learning easy.

Pronoun as object

The students whom the programmer instructed excelled in their tasks.

Students for whom online learning is difficult should seek training.

Pronoun for possession

Students whose passwords were updated need to reset their browser.

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Make pronouns agree with their antecedent

A pronoun needs to agree with the word it is referring to (the antecedent). To achieve clarity and consistency in your sentences, make sure pronouns agree with the antecedent in number, gender and person.

INCORRECT: Every computer operator must have their username and password.

CORRECT: Every computer operator must have his or her username and password.

INCORRECT: Microsoft is more reliable because of their higher quality product, and their better security.

CORRECT: Microsoft is the more reliable product because of its higher quality, and its better security.

INCORRECT: When a student logs on, you should have your password ready.

CORRECT: When you log on, you should have your password ready.

INCORRECT: When a student logs on, they should have their password ready.

CORRECT: When a student logs on, he or she should have his or her password ready.

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Make pronoun references clear

A pronoun should refer clearly to its antecedent. Avoid ambiguous or indefinite references.

Ambiguous references occur if there is more than one possible antecedent.

INCORRECT: The programmer told the student that he had changed his password. (Who changed the password? Whose password? The student or the programmer?)

CORRECT: The programmer said that he had changed the student’s password.

INCORRECT: Although the new software program corrupted the file, it could still be used. (What was still possible to use? Does ‘it’ meant the ‘program’ or the’ file’?)

CORRECT: Although the file was corrupted by the new program, the file could still be used.

Indefinite references occur when ‘they’, ‘it’ or ‘you’ refer to people or things that are not specifically mentioned in the text, or are indirectly mentioned.

INCORRECT: In the last budget, they did not allocate any more money for computers. (Who is ‘they’? Be specific. Name the person or thing—in this instance, ‘the government’.)

CORRECT: In the last budget, the government did not allocate any more money for computers.

INCORRECT: In the article, it suggests that students prefer online learning. (Don’t use ‘it’ indefinitely like this. Be specific. Rewrite your sentence with the thing [article] clearly stated.)

CORRECT: The article suggests that students prefer online learning.

Don’t use pronouns like ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘which’, ‘it’ to refer to whole ideas.

INCORRECT: The growing popularity of online learning has resulted in universities opening more distance education courses. This has meant that there is a greater need for computer programmers. (Demonstrative pronouns like ‘this’ should refer to a specific thing and not a whole idea.)

CORRECT: The growing popularity of online learning has resulted in universities opening more distance education courses. This trend has meant that there is a greater need for computer programmers.

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Check your understanding

How can the following sentence be improved? The computer started up but then the computer crashed because the computer is old.
With the use of pronouns: The computer started up but then it crashed because it is old. More information
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