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Indeterminate Personal Pronoun Usage

Personal pronouns are so useful; we scatter them through our sentences without a second thought. We use them so often that sometimes we forget to specify which noun the pronoun indicates, so that occasionally we might think we’re referring to a person baking, but the sentence tells us that it’s a cat doing the work.

INCORRECT

  • The cat watched Marie while she baked; she was working hard.
  • Jack knew how happy his father would be once he returned home at last.
  • I added my phone to the pile of phones; it was buzzing with incoming texts.

CORRECT

The vague designations of personal pronouns — she, he, it, they — require us to focus attention on the main figure in the sentence. The cat may have been working hard, but Marie was doing the baking. If you cannot tell whether Jack or his father was returning home, being more specific will focus attention on Jack’s father. Whether the phone or the pile of phones was buzzing is a mystery!

MORE TO KNOW

Personal pronouns stand in for nouns. They make sentences flow smoothly, help us avoid repetition, and offer creative possibilities. Consider “Bob knew he would need all his wits about him,” and “Bob knew Bob would need all Bob’s wits about Bob”! By using personal pronouns to indicate the agent or actor in the sentence, you can avoid writing “The dog watched the squirrel; he leaped out of danger.”

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