Perhaps you’ve seen one too many office memos or e-mails misusing pronouns and you’re wondering, “Why do people have difficulty with pronoun usage in English?” Or perhaps you’re one of those people who just know which pronoun to use, and you don’t understand what’s so hard about it. If so, count yourself very fortunate because English pronouns are pretty hard to master, mostly because there are several different kinds, and some of them are exactly alike while others are completely different. We’ll take a look at each type, how it’s used, and you can remember (or teach your co-workers to remember) them.
A pronoun is a word that stands in the place of a noun or noun phrase. We use pronouns a lot in English to keep from using the same noun over and over again, and to shorten sentences that include long noun phrases. In a conversation about our friend Adam, for example, it would get very tiresome very quickly to have to use Adam’s name every time we refer to Adam. Very soon, we would hate the sound of Adam’s name, and we would resent Adam for even coming up in our conversation. Therefore, we replace “Adam” with pronouns like “he” and “him.”
Similarly, in a conversation about the beautiful painting done by my third cousin twice removed which sits covered in dust in my parents’ attic because my father finds it disturbing, I’m sure everyone is quite relieved to know that we can call said painting simply “it.”
There are nine different kinds of pronouns in English. You’ll notice that some of the pronouns appear in more than one list.
For people learning English as a second or foreign language, pronouns can be difficult because they are expressed differently in their native language. “It” doesn’t exist in many languages, reflexive verbs are formed differently, and some languages only have one relative pronoun. Mastering English pronouns takes a lot of time and practice.
Native English speakers sometimes have a hard time choosing the correct pronoun in English because some of the pronouns are homonyms. For example, there is no difference between the subject pronoun “you” and the object pronoun “you.” Nor is there a difference between the relative pronoun “who” and the interrogative pronoun “who,” but they are used differently.
The biggest problem people have with pronoun usage in English is choosing between subject and object pronouns. Luckily, if you are a native English speaker, it’s a pretty easy fix. How many times have you heard sentences like these and cringed?
First of all, for those of you who just read those sentences and didn’t see a problem with them, pay attention. In each one, a subject or object pronoun is used incorrectly. The correct sentences should read:
Now, I know there are others of you out there who feel like the second sentence now sounds improper. You were constantly corrected growing up to say, “__________ and I” because it sounds more refined. Well, it only sounds more refined if you’re using it correctly. If you misuse it, it doesn’t sound refined at all; it just sounds wrong. The test to find out whether you are using the correct pronoun is simple – just remove the other person and ask yourself if the pronoun is correct.
Now, keep the correct pronoun (I), and put the other person back in:
Let’s try it with the other sentences:
The other tricky pronouns are who and whom, which are also subject and object pronouns respectively, so you can use a similar trick to figure out which one you need. Pick a subject/object pronoun pair – she/her, for example – and use one or the other to answer these questions:
If you answer the question with the subject (she), then use the subject interrogative pronoun (who) in the question. If you answer the question with the object (her), then use the object interrogative pronoun (whom) in the question.
Hopefully this has been more enlightening than confusing, and now, even though you understand pronouns perfectly, you’ll no longer wonder, “Why do people have difficulty with pronoun usage in English?” You know exactly why, and you can help them use those pronouns correctly.