Pronouns

Pronouns are words such as "I," "it," "they," "who," and "this" that stand in for nouns, noun phrases, and other pronouns. This page is not a comprehensive introduction to pronouns (although you can find one at Purdue University's Online Writing Lab), but a guide to some of the stickier pronoun situations you might encounter, with examples from legal writing.

Subject vs. Object

Personal pronouns come in pairs, one for use as a subject and one for use as an object. Most of the time, fluent speakers can hear the difference between "I" and "me," "we" and "us," "he" and "him," "she" and "her," "they" and "them" when used in a sentence: ";I went to the movies with them,"; ";He bought her a present."; Here are some instances that are more likely to be confusing.

In compounds

Wrong: "Her concern for Jeffries increased when John Jeffries threw a glass bottle from the top of the stairs at Mr. Jeffries and she."

Pronouns that are part of compounds should be used in the same form that would be used if the pronouns stood alone. One way to test this is to take out every part of the compound but the pronoun. Which sounds better, "threw a glass bottle … at she" or "threw a glass bottle … at her"?

Right: "Her concern for Jeffries increased when John Jeffries threw a glass bottle from the top of the stairs at Mr. Jeffries and her."

After a linking verb

Although pronouns toward the ends of sentences will tend to be objects ("We went with them," "He gave it to me," etc.), those following forms of the verb ";to be"; — am, is, are, was, were — are technically restatements of the subject, and therefore require subject form.

Wrong: "It was him who initiated the phone call."

Right: "It was he who initiated the phone call."

Although this phrasing is correct, it may sound archaic to you. If so, you might rewrite the sentence.

Right: "He was the one who initiated the phone call."

Who vs. Whom

Contrary to common usage, "whom" is not just a fancy word for "who" that you should use when you want to sound important. The difference between "who" and "whom" is the same as the difference between "I" and "me;" "I" and "who" are subjects, while "me" and "whom" are objects. Look at the following sentence:

Wrong: "As long as parties are voluntarily participating in mediation and given a choice as to whom their mediator will be, they should be allowed to choose anyone they see fit."

This writer does have a right idea, that "whom" follows a preposition, which generally is followed by an object form. However, the phrase "given a choice as to" introduces a clause, or a dependent part of the sentence that has both a subject and a verb, that might be rewritten to stand alone: "Who will be their mediator?" Here, the clause involves a linking verb, so the subject form of the pronoun is necessary.

Right: "As long as parties are voluntarily participating in mediation and given a choice as to who their mediator will be, they should be allowed to choose anyone they see fit."

Here's a sentence where "whom" is correct.

Right: "The claimed constitutional deprivation must result from the exercise of a right or privilege created either by the state, by a rule of conduct imposed by the state, or by a person for whom the state is responsible."

In this instance, the clause would read: "the state is responsible for …" Clearly, the object form is called for.

If, in correcting for who/whom and similar pronouns, you find that the technically correct version sounds strange to you, you might want to try rewriting the sentence so that it is both correct and appealing.

Right: "As long as parties are voluntarily participating in mediation and given a choice of mediators, they should be allowed to choose anyone that they see fit."

Singular/Plural agreement

Pronouns should agree in number with the nouns they refer to ("The students agreed that they would form a study group"). Writers are probably most likely to slip up in agreement when they are unsure whether the pronoun antecedent is singular or plural, or when they are trying to avoid gender bias by using "they."

Some singulars and plurals to watch for

Some nouns, such as collective nouns and words from Latin, may not be instantly recognizable as singular or plural. For example, a court is considered to be an institution, and requires a singular pronoun regardless of whether the court you are writing about consists of one individual or a group of people.

Wrong: "The court stated that they were ill-equipped to second-guess the trial court judge's determination."

Right: "The court stated that it was ill-equipped to second-guess the trial court judge's determination."

See the page on subject/verb agreement for a fuller listing of the trickier singulars and plurals.

Noun/pronoun disagreement and gender bias

You have probably read (or even written) many sentences like this one:

Wrong: "Given that New York State does not currently have a single set of court rules for all non-adjudicative mediators, a private practitioner interested in implementing mediation services in their solo practice may be unsure about what standards to aspire to."

The sentence first discusses "a private practitioner," then refers to "their solo practice." But since there is only one practitioner in the subject, any pronouns referring to that practitioner should be singular: "her solo practice," "his solo practice."

A problem arises when this hypothetical practitioner is potentially either male or female. Thus, "their" has become a common dodge for escaping gender bias, because it does not indicate gender.

Not Really Right: "In order for a child to be classified as requiring special education, he needs to be provided with the necessary evaluations."

Formerly, "he" was assumed to include both male and female individuals, but this practice is no longer widely accepted.

Right but Cumbersome: "In order for a child to be classified as requiring special education, he or she needs to be provided with the necessary evaluations."

No wonder people have reached for "they." The trick for making the technique work is to change the initial noun from singular to plural, so that it matches "they."

Right: "In order for children to be classified as requiring special education, they need to be provided with the necessary evaluations."

Unclear Reference

When they are not handled carefully, pronouns can introduce ambiguity into your writing. When several male persons have been named, which one does "he" indicate? Will your reader see immediately which previously described concept or situation your use of "this" refers to?

With Personal Pronouns

Wrong: "When Rodriguez entered the precinct, she told the officer at the front desk about Jeffries's condition, but rather than taking her report, she was asked to speak directly with Officer Frazier."

Does the second "she" in this sentence refer to Rodriguez, to the officer at the front desk, or even possibly to Jeffries? The phrase "rather than taking her report" leads the reader to expect the next pronoun to refer to the officer at the desk, but "was asked to speak directly with Officer Frazier" sounds like advice to Rodriguez. This sentence could be rewritten in a number of ways; here are two options.

Right: "When Rodriguez entered the precinct, she told the officer at the front desk about Jeffries's condition, but her report was not taken and she was asked instead to speak directly with Officer Frazier."

Right: "When Rodriguez entered the precinct, she told the officer at the front desk about Jeffries's condition, but rather than taking her report, the officer asked her to speak directly with Officer Frazier."

With "This," "That," and "Which"

Wrong: "Mediation may resolve an issue quickly and not allow for parties to heal which may be accomplished by delays in the court system."

What may be accomplished here, resolution or healing?

Wrong: "Perhaps if Tuparo decided that he would not sign the contract until these matters were cleared up or his propositions were considered an argument could be made that this was a counteroffer. Yet this was not the circumstances of this case."

These two sentences use three "this"es and a "these." The agreement problem in the second sentence also makes comprehension more difficult. When instances of the word "this" create a problem in your writing, replace them with something concrete. Here's a way to replace one here:

Right: "... an argument could be made that the additional writing he appended to the contract was a counteroffer."

Other Potential Problems

Here are a few more pronoun issues to look out for.

Who vs. That

Wrong: "Whether a relationship between the mediator and non-English speaking parties can be established when a translator is present that is not part of the procedure."

Right: "Whether a relationship between the mediator and non-English speaking parties can be established when a translator is present who is not part of the procedure."

"Who" is used for people; "that" is used for other nouns.

Consistency

Wrong: "Prison life requires that one give up their liberty and other rights, but not his fundamental right of due process."

In this sentence, "one," "their," and "his" are all meant to refer to the same person, but do so in varying ways. It is better to be consistent; choose one way of referring to the subject and use it throughout the sentence. Here's one option:

Right: "Prison life requires that people give up their liberty and other rights, but not their fundamental right of due process."

Personal pronouns

Wrong: "We urge the court to deny the motion to dismiss."

In formal legal writing, it is not customary to identify yourself, the writer. In the conventions of this discourse, words like "I," "we," and "our" are avoided.