Section 7: Misuse of Pronouns

Finally, a common pronoun usage error is using only masculine or feminine pronouns as generic pronouns to refer to anyone, male or female, in a group of mixed or unknown sex. This sexist use of pronouns can seem to diminish or deny the presence of an entire gender. Traditional usage calls for writers to always use the masculine pronoun when referring to someone of unknown gender or a group of mixed gender. Some writers choose instead to always use the feminine pronoun. This leads to sentences such as:

  • Give someone a bottle of Irish Mist, and you give him hills that roll forever, lakes that radiate light.
  • A doctor must do what is best for her patients.
  • Each Fortune 500 CEO was given his own spread in a special edition of Forbes magazine.

The simplest way to fix sexist pronoun usage is to revise sentences to eliminate the need for a singular, gendered pronoun. Change pronoun antecedents to non-gendered plurals:

  • Give your friends a bottle of Irish Mist, and you give them hills that roll forever, lakes that radiate light.
  • Doctors must do what is best for their patients.
  • All the Fortune 500 CEOs were given their own spread in a special edition of Forbes magazine.

A second common pronoun usage error is using singular and plural pronouns in conjunction, which can lead to number-agreement problems. When a singular indefinite pronoun is the antecedent, writers commonly follow it with a plural pronoun. The use of the plural pronoun is often an attempt to avoid sexist use of the masculine he/his or feminine she/her. In many respects, this is an acceptable option, and one accepted by a variety of style guides, but it can also lead to grammatical number-agreement errors:

  • Our society has gotten to the point where each person does what’s right in their own eyes.
  • Everyone in the Girl Scout troop took off their shoes.
  • No one in the office would admit that they had crashed the computer server.

For the sake of precision, there are several easy ways to fix number-agreement errors. First, you can change the antecedent to a plural, so that both antecedent and pronoun are plural. Second, if you know that everyone in the group referred to is either male or female, you can use the appropriately gendered pronoun. Third, you can replace the plural pronoun with both singular, gendered pronouns.

  • Our society has gotten to the point where all people do what’s right in their own eyes.
  • Everyone in the Girl Scout troop took off her shoes.
  • No one in the office would admit that he or she had crashed the computer server.

In general, many of these common errors occur because writers do not take the time (or are not given the time) to edit their writing closely. Writers should always set aside adequate time to edit for appropriate punctuation and consistent use of all language elements.