Personal pronouns are like ambassadors, representing someone or some thing. Without a clearly understood antecedent (the noun that identifies he, she, or it), the ambassador has no one to represent other than himself, which is weak writing.
- Watch for Unclear Antecedents
You want readers to associate he or she with the right person and it with the right thing. Don’t let readers be confused by a second possibility.
- John sat with Bill at the back of the church. He John picked up a hymnal and turned to the responsive readings. (Who picked up the hymnal, John or Bill?)
- As they neared the dock, they assured me that it the ice was safe. (The antecedent wasn’t clear. The skater wanted to know if the ice was thick enough to be safe, but the sentence indicates a concern for the safety of the dock.)
- The boy rubbed his nose with his hand and wiped it his hand on his shirt. (What was rubbed on the shirt, his nose or his hand?)
- He shook his head and put it his cell phone into his pocket. (How funny he would look with his head in his pocket.)
- Put the Noun before the Pronoun.
Avoid using he or she at the beginning of a paragraph and then follow with the person’s name later in the paragraph. As long as another character isn’t introduced, the pronoun should be good for the entire paragraph.
- She Rachel stared at him. Rachel She knew men, and everything about his expression said he was telling the truth.
- Who or That?
Use who when referring to people. Use that when referring to non-human entities. For a children’s story that gives animals the ability to talk, use who.
- I was seen by the same doctor that who had seen my student.
- We need to reach others that who don’t fit the pattern.
- This swamp was owned by the state who that built the roads into the park.
- Use It with Caution.
Whenever it is used, view it as a caution flag, signaling a place where you might strengthen your writing. Readers have little difficulty visualizing the person he or she refers to. The genderless it is a different matter. It can be animal, vegetable, or mineral, real or abstract, human or spirit. With limitless possibilities, readers work to understand what it is. You might give them an easier read by replacing it with what it is. A second sentence using it can often be combined with the previous sentence where the it has been defined, eliminating the need for the pronoun.
- To reduce the cost of the reservoir, the Army Corps of Engineers moved it the reservoir south.
- He bolted out of the chair and got the cup of water and handed it the cup of water to her. (Did he hand her the cup or the chair?)
- That or Which?
The right choice of the relational pronoun depends on whether the subsequent phrase explains or restricts the antecedent. For explanations, use which, preceded by a comma. For restrictions, use that with no comma.
- Bass stirred the surface like whitewater rapids, striking the shad that were feeding on the algae. (Restrictive, limiting the shad to those feeding on the algae.)
- I didn’t like the song that was playing, so I spun the knob to the next station down the dial. (Restrictive, limiting the songs to only the one playing.)
- The album was titled And Then I Wrote—Willie Nelson’s first album, which included “Touch Me,” “Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” and “Mr. Record Man.” (Explanatory. The scope of the statement wouldn’t be affected if the phrase were omitted.)
- Genderless Singular
The English language doesn’t have a genderless singular pronoun, a word to use in place of “he or she,” “him or her,” “his or hers.” Referring to a person (who might be male or might be female) as “it” hasn’t worked. For centuries, the male pronoun was used in a genderless sense, but modern society views that practice as sexist. In informal speech and some writing, the plural “their” is used in the singular sense, which is not the best choice since it’s grammatically incorrect. An even worse practice is the random use of “he” or “she,” which is absurdly confusing. You may see all these styles in print, but only one is preferable: converting the singular subject to plural.
- Not acceptable: A person convinced against his will is of the same opinion still. (Now regarded as a sexist.)
- Not acceptable: When the cold days are gone, he will feel the warmth of the sun. She will no longer shiver. (Confusing because the visual image flips unpredictably between male and female, for no apparent reason.)
- Not acceptable: A writer fails when he/she gives up. (Since our language doesn’t recognize “he/she” and “him/her” as valid words, never use this approach.)
- A poor choice: A writer who touches others leaves their fingerprint from God. (Grammatically incorrect because the plural pronouns “they” and “their” don’t match a singular subject.)
- Acceptable but awkward: Blessed is he or she who struggles, for he or she will have great stories to tell. (While this style is grammatically correct, the repetition of “he or she” or “him or her” quickly becomes awkward if not absurd.)
- The best choice: Blessed are writers who struggle, for they will have great stories to tell.