Correcting Inappropriate Shifts in Pronouns

Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

Pronouns are often a part of speech that are overlooked and misused. This lesson focuses on how to identify and correct erroneous shifts in pronoun use.

Pronouns and Antecedents

All words fall into one of eight categories or parts of speech. One such part of speech is the pronoun. A pronoun is a word used in place of another noun or pronoun. These words exist to make our language more concise and less repetitive. By using pronouns, we don't have to reuse the same noun over and over. Here are some common pronouns: I, we, you, he, she, it, they, my, our, your, his, her, it.

To understand inappropriate shifts in pronouns, you must also understand and identify the antecedent, which is the word the pronoun refers to or replaces. Look at this pair of sentences:

  • Bob threw me the baseball. He threw it too hard.

Can you identify the pronouns? 'Me', 'he' and 'it' are all pronouns used in these sentences. Looking at the second sentence, 'Bob' is the antecedent of the pronoun 'he' and 'baseball' is the antecedent for the pronoun 'it'. 'He' and 'it' are referring to or taking the place of those nouns.

One important aspect of pronouns is agreement with the antecedent. In the second sentence, why do you use the pronoun 'he' instead of 'she'? You should be able to see that since Bob is a boy, you must use the male pronoun 'he' instead of the female 'she'. This is an example of agreement based on gender. Gender agreement is perhaps the easiest to notice in sentences, but pronouns must also agree in person and number.

Shifts in Person

One error that can happen when using pronouns is an incorrect shift in person, which refers to the relationships between the participants in the event or action. In simpler terms, person is the distinction between the speaker, addressee or someone else. The three basic distinctions are first person (I, me, my), second person (you, your) and third person (he, she, it, etc.).

Agreement in person for pronouns refers to the pronoun being consistent with the antecedent in terms of person. For instance, if the antecedent is in first person, the pronoun must be, too. Look back at the previous example.

  • Bob threw me the baseball. He threw it too hard.

'Bob' is in third person and so must be replaced by the third person pronoun 'he'. Imagine instead if it read: Bob threw me the baseball. You threw it too hard. What is wrong here? In this case, 'Bob' was replaced by the second person pronoun 'you'. This is an incorrect shift in pronoun due to person.

Now look at these two sentences. The second one shows another shift in person.

  • I lost my red pen.
  • I lost your red pen.

In the first sentence, the pronoun 'my' agrees with the first person antecedent 'I'. The second sentence shows a shift to the second person 'your'. Grammatically speaking, this sentence could be correct, but it would need a different antecedent for 'your' if you really mean that you lost your own pen. Leaving it as is would make the meaning very different from the first sentence.

To check for errors in person, determine if the antecedents are in first, second or third person. The pronouns need to match whichever person of those antecedents.

Shifts in Number

Another error that can happen with pronouns is an inappropriate shift in number, which refers to distinctions in the count of nouns or pronouns. The two distinctions in our language that nouns can have are singular, which is one, or plural, which is two or more. Agreement in number means pronouns must agree with their antecedent in those two distinctions. If the antecedent is singular, then the pronoun must be singular, too. The same goes for plural. One more time, look at the previous example.

  • Bob threw me the baseball. He threw it too hard.

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