By Crystal BowmanCreating words pictures can be hard work. As writers, we want to create visuals and stimulate the senses of our readers. We want our writing to shine. But it’s those little in between words that can really challenge our writing. I’m talking about pronouns. They do not add creativity or emotion to our writing. They do not enhance the suspense of a plot. They simply give us an alternative to using a person’s name too many times. At first, they seem pretty innocent. But when you begin using them in your stories, they can mess with you. To cover the entire spectrum of pronouns would take numerous blog posts, so let’s just look at a few that tend to trip up writers.
Singular Subject/Singular Pronoun
The previous rule was fairly simple—always use a singular pronoun with a singular subject.
Example: When my mom shops at the market, she can buy fresh produce.
Easy-peasy. But when we don’t know the gender of the subject, it gets more complicated.
Example: When a person shops at the market, he or
she can buy fresh produce.
Or: When a person shops the market, it can buy fresh produce.
Since these gender-neutral options are awkward, the sixteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS, 2010) introduced using they, them, and their as singular pronouns. I almost went into a period of mourning—but I am getting used to it. I agree it’s better than referring to a person as it, and the whole he or she thing is a bit weird.
Examples: When your child is talking to you, they
want you to listen.
Go for a walk with a friend and tell them you enjoy their company.
Since this decision was met with opposition, the position of CMOS is that using they, them, and their as singular, gender-neutral pronouns is acceptable, but professional writers may want to explore other options such as changing the subject to plural when possible.
Example: When children are talking to you, they want you to listen.
He, She, I—These are singular personal pronouns when used as the subject. When used as the direct object, they become him, her, and me. Example: She threw the ball to me. I called her on the phone. These are pretty much no-brainers, but when the subjects or direct objects are compound, the grammar police show up! Brad and I are going on a date (correct). The night was fun for Brad and I. (wrong). You would not say: The night was fun for I. So when it’s a compound direct object use me. The night was fun for Brad and me (correct).
My, mine, your, yours, his, her, hers, their, theirs, its, our, whose are used to show that something belongs to an antecedent. These are pretty straightforward, but a common mistake is made with the word its. Its is a singular possessive pronoun and needs no apostrophe (like his or hers). It’s is the contraction of it is and always uses an apostrophe.
Example: It’s best to put trash in its place.
Relative pronouns are used to connect relative clauses to independent clauses, sometime offering more information. Relative pronouns include that, what, which, who, and whom. Typically, who refers to people, and which and that refer to animals or things.
people who live in the United States are Americans.
The dog that was lost was found by a neighbor.
A common confusion with writers is when to use who vs whom—Who is a subject pronoun and whom is a direct object pronoun.
Example: Who is
going to the conference next week?
To whom are you sending those letters?
And the big question is: Do we capitalize pronouns referring to God? Some believe it shows reverence for God, while other believe our rules of English deem it unnecessary. Most publishers leave it up to the author to decide. The key is to be consistent. If you prefer to capitalize deity pronouns, then any Scripture references you use should be from a version that also capitalizes the pronouns for God such as the New King James Version. If you do not capitalize deity pronouns, then use versions such as the New International Version or New Living Translation (there are many more).
The Bottom Line
Pronouns may be small words, but they can make a big difference in your writing, so professional writers need to learn how to use them correctly. Pronouns will never go away, so keep polishing those little in-between words to make your writing shine.
(Photos courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net and Stuart Miles.)
Crystal Bowman is a former preschool teacher and a bestselling, award-winning author. She has written more than 100 books for children and four nonfiction books for women. She is the creator and co-author of Our Daily Bread for Kids, M is for Manger, and I love You to the Stars—When Grandma Forgets, Love Remembers. She is also a speaker, freelance editor, and Mentor for MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers). More than 2 million copies of her books have sold internationally, and her books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. She is a regular contributor to Clubhouse Jr. Magazine, and writes lyrics for children’s piano music. She and her husband enjoy spending time with their grown children and seven huggable grandkids.