Friday, November 20, 2020

Those Pesky Little Pronouns

by Crystal Bowman

Some of the shortest words in the English language can be as annoying as a mosquito in your bedroom when you’re trying to fall asleep. I’m talking about pronouns. They do not add creativity or emotion to your 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 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.

Personal Pronouns
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).

Possessive Pronouns
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
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.

Example: The 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?

Deity Pronouns
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, not even with mosquito repellant.


Crystal Bowman is an award-winning, bestselling author of more than 100 books for children and four nonfiction books for women. She also writes lyrics for children’s piano music and is a monthly contributor to Clubhouse Jr. Magazine. She loves going to schools to teach kids about poetry. She also speaks at MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) groups and teaches workshops at writers’ conferences. When she is not writing or speaking, she enjoys going for walks, working out at the gym, and eating ice cream. She and her husband live in Michigan and have seven huggable grandkids. 


  1. Thank you, Crystal! You hit on one of my pet peeves, the misuse of I instead of me. I'm forever seeing writers use it wrong on an authors loops I'm on. Seeing "She gave it to Brad and I." is like fingernails on a chalkboard!

    1. I agree completely. It's for sure one of my pet peeves too.

  2. Replies
    1. You are welcome. It's basic stuff, but I hope it's helpful.

  3. Thank you Crystal. I had not heard about matching our use of capitalizing deity or not with the Bible translation we use.

    1. You are welcome. I recently had an editor request that and it made sense to me.

  4. This is a very needed lesson. About the time I think I've got everything under control, I don't. I know more better than I do at times. LOL Donevy