Let’s Get Personal About Personal Pronouns

By Lauren Carter

Last week I wrote about the difference between active and passive sentences. One thing I wrote about was how active sentences are easier for your audience to understand. Why? Well, one of the reasons is that the doer is explicit in active sentences. When we use passive sentences on the other hand, it’s really easy to mask the doer because we don’t actually have to explicitly say it if we don’t want to.

While writing that post, I started thinking about pronouns and how we can use them in active sentences to really boost how comprehensible it is. And so, that’s how today’s post was born.

What are pronouns?

If you’re a language nerd like I am or perhaps an English teacher, you’ll no doubt already know what pronouns are. But for those of you who don’t know or need a little refresher, pronouns are words that stand in for nouns.

There are five types of pronouns in English:

  • Personal pronouns (listed below)
  • Demonstrative pronouns: this, these, that, those
  • Relative pronouns: who, whom, whose, which, what, that
  • Indefinite pronouns: something, anyone, nobody
  • Interrogative pronouns: who, whom, whose, what, which

There’s SO much to say about pronouns (only a true language nerd would say that! Ha!๐Ÿ˜œ), so I just want to focus on personal pronouns for the rest of this post. I’ll come back to the others another time.

So, the personal pronouns in English are as follows:

SingularPlural
First-personI, me, my, mine, myselfwe, us, our, ours, ourselves
Second-personyou, your, yours, yourselfyou, your, yours, yourselves
Third-personhe, him, his, himself
she, her, hers, herself
it, its, itself
they, them, their, theirs, themself*
they, them, their, theirs, themselves

* singular they is contentious (I totally believe in it though!). I’ll come back to it in a later post.

What do pronouns do?

Basically, we use pronouns so we don’t have to continue saying the same noun phrase over and over again. Remember that a noun phrase is a person, place, or thing (e.g. woman, museum, apple). Could you imagine having to repeat every noun phrase you say every single time you wanted to refer to it? It would look something like this:

  • Could the person reading this imagine having to repeat every noun phrase the person reading this says every single time the person reading this wanted to refer to every noun phrase the person reading this says?

How ridiculous does that sound!?!? Obviously, this in an exaggerated example, but you get the idea.

Imagine if pronouns didn’t exist! No thanks โ€” that’s not a world I wanna be a part of!

Why should I use pronouns?

So, the moral of the story is this: pronouns are our friends! They help writers and speakers:

  • Save time
  • Save brainpower
  • Make nouns easier to refer to

Pronouns are also super awesome because they help the reader too! Pronouns make it easier:

  • To address the reader without using long and convoluted ways to refer to them
  • For readers to identify themselves in your text and apply the information you’re sharing with them correctly.

Raise your hand if you love reading texts like this: “Any student who fails to comply with this code of conduct as outlined in subsection 212 shall be unable to proceed with their enrolment of English class”. (okay, I made this up, but it’s not far from the truth sometimes!)

Nope, not me. I hate texts like this! They’re just unnecessarily difficult to understand, even for a university-educated person like me.

I’d rather something like this: “If you don’t follow these rules, then you can’t come to English class.” It doesn’t have exactly the same meaning, but it’s more or less the same and 99% of the time it’s sufficient.

How do I use more personal pronouns in my communication?

There are 2 simple steps to using more personal pronouns. You need to:

  1. Identify the noun phrases
  2. Replace them with appropriate personal pronouns when necessary

Let’s break these down further.

Identifying noun phrases

A noun phrase is a chunk of words that has a noun in it. Remember that nouns are words that refer to things, ideas, people, or places. They can be both physical or abstract things. Now, I say “chunk of words”, but really it might just be one word. I’ve underlined the noun phrases in the following example sentences:

  • Apples are green or red.
  • Happiness is the key to life.
  • The girl with the pink hair moshed like crazy at the gig last night.
  • The pink-haired girl moshed like crazy at last night’s gig.
  • The white house with the red door that the man just walked past is my grandma’s house.

An easy way to work out noun phrases is to look for words like “a” and “the” as a lot of noun phrases start with these. You can also work out where the noun phrase starts or ends by looking for the verb phrase and then finding the chunks of words before or after them. A verb phrase is the action that’s being done plus any modifying elements. The verb phrases in the above sentences are “are”, “is”, “moshed like crazy”, and “is”.

This may sound hard if you’ve never done it before or aren’t too familiar with grammar, so I’ll write some other posts soon that really go into noun phrases, verb phrases, and how to identify them.

Using appropriate pronouns

The next part of the puzzle is to work out what pronouns to use according to your situation and audience. I find that if you’re writing a text that’s providing information about what you want your audience to do, you should use “you” and “I/we”.

Think about it from your audience’s perspective. Which would you prefer?

  • All students must come to class every day. If a student can’t come, then the student must call the school and tell the staff.
  • You must come to class every day. If you can’t come, then you must call us and tell us.

I’d definitely choose the second one any day of the week! Why? Well, it’s just easier to read and understand because it makes it clear who is who in this situation.

But what about if you’re creating a text where using “you” isn’t relevant? It’s simple โ€” use a different pronoun. You might want to use he/him, she/her, or they/them instead. For example, if you’re creating a text that a parent will read but it’s about their child, then using these third-person pronouns (he/she/they) is definitely acceptable.

A word of warning though . . . please consider using gender-neutral pronouns when using third-person pronouns! I don’t know about you, but as a woman I’m often frustrated when I see “he” used as the default pronoun. So, what’s the solution? Just use they or them when you’re referring to people in third-person. It’s really that simple.

This week’s challenge

The challenge this week is to really pay attention to and notice when pronouns are used (or not used!). Do this when you’re reading, writing, speaking, or listening. Get curious, my friend!

If there aren’t many pronouns being used, ask yourself why that might be and whether that’s appropriate or not for the text. If it’s appropriate, then cool beans! Nothing to worry about. ๐Ÿ˜„ But, if you think your audience might benefit from using more personal pronouns, then consider adding more. Try to identify the noun phrases first and then select an appropriate pronoun to use.

I remember when I was in my first year of studying linguistics at uni. All of this grammar stuff seemed SO difficult! But, like anything, after lots of practice and curiosity it’s become second-nature to me. And that will happen to you too, my friend! Be kind to yourself and stay curious! You’ve got this ๐Ÿ’ช 

See all posts ยป