Questions on Pronouns


Question (From an N.C. State freshman): I am writing a paper on the best residence hall for freshmen to stay at on N.C. State campus. I am having a lot of trouble using too many I's in my introductory paragraph. How can I minimize the amount of I's I am using?

Answer: Check your paragraph for qualifiers. If you are using I a lot, you may be using main clauses like "I think," or "I believe." Try deleting such phrases and making statements of fact. This will not only eliminate I's, but will also make your paragraph sound more confident.


Question: It used to be appropriate to refer to the unknown gender subject with the masculine pronoun.

Borrower certifies that he . . .

I often see incorrect uses of the plural pronoun.

Borrower certifies that they . . .

I often see the politically correct version of the 90s.

Borrower certifies that he/she . . .

Which is preferred or most commonly used today?

Answer: In matters of style, most writers and editors follow the house rules of the style manuals attached to the publications for which they are writing. Such style manuals are carefully constructed to match the standard preferences of the audience to which the publication is directed. The underlying editorial principle is to avoid distracting the reader from content with issues of format.

Most style manuals will counsel an evasive maneuver for the issue you raise. In English, only the third-person singular pronoun is marked for sex. Rewriting the sentence so that the subject is anything other than third-person singular will allow the writer to avoid gender-specific language altogether. Thus: Borrowers certify that they . . .

Alternatively:

Instructions for borrowers: Certify that you . . .

This works more often than you might think. On the other hand, it doesnít always work, and when it doesnít, you must make a decision.

The Grammar Hotline prizes clarity over political correctness. I have read arguments counseling giving up the rule that antecedents and pronouns must match in number, but I find them unconvincing. I believe they generate distracting and unreadable prose. Similarly, I find the he/she dodge grating. I canít imagine why a writer would choose it unless the intent is actually to put the rhetorical equivalent of little neon arrows around he/she that flash: "Look how PC I am!"

I recognize all the problems. Iíve heard all the arguments. But in the end, I recommend the Associated Pressís courageous rule on this issue, s.v. "his, her":

Do not presume maleness in constructing a sentence, but use the pronoun his when an indefinite antecedent may be male or female: "A reporter attempts to protect his sources. (Not his or her sources, but note the use of the word reporter rather than newsman.

Frequently, however, the best choice is a slight revision of the sentence: "Reporters attempt to protect their sources."


Question (From a freshman composition instructor): I know the difference, but in class last week, I couldn't come up with sentences showing where whom is used--apart from sentences with whom phrases that begin with a preposition. Can you supply a few sentences with an embedded whom that I can present to my class next week?

Answer: There are two major categories: (1) interrogative pronouns; (2) relative pronouns. Objective case is used as direct object, indirect object, or object of the preposition. When it is used as an indirect object, the interrogative "whom" is usually encased in a spun-out prepositional phrase.

Category 1: Whom do you trust? To whom did they give the award? To whom am I speaking?

Category 2: My grandmother, whom I love dearly, sent me a box of cookies. My English instructor, in whom I have great confidence, explained the proper use of "whom." Ask not for whom the bell tolls.

Students most often confuse sentences in which the relative pronoun's relationship to the embedded clause is ambiguous. Let's look at this:

Robert, who(m) I believed was my best friend, was actually a two-timing, double-crossing rat.

The who in this sentence is not the object of believed; it is the subject of "was my best friend." Such sentences are very tricky. The relative pronoun actually raises to the believed clause if the completer is an infinitive. Thus:

Robert, who I believed was my best friend, was actually a two-timing, double-crossing rat.
-but-
Robert, whom I believed to be my best friend, was actually a two-timing, double-crossing rat.

To understand why this is so, you have to look at the underlying embedded clauses:

I believed he was my best friend.
-but-
I believe him to be my best friend.

In general, I am flexible on all rules, but I am absolutely rigid on this one: Do not try to teach syntactic raising to undergraduates. Even a casual attempt could drain the department of all its majors in less than twenty minutes.


Question: When do you use who and when whom? I read E. B. White's Elements of Style to no avail. Could you please elaborate on the differences and perhaps give some examples?

Answer: The choice between who and whom depends on the function of the word in its sentence or clause. Choose who if the word is the subject or predicate nominative (nominative case); choose whom if the word is the direct object or the object of a preposition (accusative case). Thus:,

Who is coming to dinner?
Whom do you trust?

Obviously, this distinction is a little bit fuzzy in modern English, in which only pronouns are regularly declined, but this characteristic of modern English provides a way for you to sort out who's and whom's: Convert questions to statements, substitute a pronoun that doesn't cause you any trouble, determine if it's nominative or accusative, and then revert back to who or whom.

Here's how it works:

Who/whom is coming to dinner? -- He is coming to dinner.
"He" is nominative, so choose "who."
Thus: Who is coming to dinner?

Who/whom do you trust? -- You do trust him.
"Him" is accusative, so choose "whom."
Thus: Whom do you trust?

Let's try another one:

To who/whom am I speaking? -- I am speaking to him.
"Him" is accusative, so choose "whom."
Thus: To whom am I speaking?

The hardest ones are the ones with predicate nominatives. This is because many speakers have trouble with all predicate nominatives--even those with pronouns. Anyway:

Who/whom do you think you are? -- You think you are he.
"He" is a predicate nominative, so choose "who."
Thus: Who do you think you are?


Question: Here is a sentence that appears in a paper that I am grading.

These are the only risks that are important to investors because they cannot be diversified.

The student means that systematic risk is what cannot be diversified; but doesn't this sentence say that investors can't be diversified? (That is, doesn't the they refer to investors?)

Answer: You're right, of course. Pronouns have a nasty habit of attaching to the nearest possible antecedent, which in this case is the noun investors. The cure, however, is not all that easy to figure out. One way is to move the phrase with the pronoun to the beginning of the sentence:

Because systematic risks cannot be diversified, they are the only risks that are important to investors. This, of course, changes the emphasis. Another way is to re-specify the noun: Systematic risks are the only risks that are important to investors because these risks cannot be diversified.

This is awkward and redundant. Another way is to change the clause structure:

The only risks that are important to investors are systematic risks. This is because they are they only risks that cannot be diversified.

This is a little wordy, but it does do the job. I'd find it hard to choose among these options out of the context of the essay.


Question: I am thoroughly confused on the proper use of me (e.g., you & me, Dave and me, etc.). I fear that too many years' avoidance of personal pronouns in my journalistic and technical writing career has left me brain-dead on this point. (Feeling quite ignorant, but adamant in the belief that there's no such thing as a stupid question in learning what you don't know or understand.)

Answer: You haven't actually asked a question, which leaves me at a distinct disadvantage in trying to answer you. Fortunately, however, the Grammar Hotline is of sturdy stock, and I am willing to go out on a limb to give you some advice that you may find useful.

The examples you give are both two nouns linked by the conjunction "and." If this is the kind of construction that puzzles you, try eliminating the first element in the compound and read the sentence with the first-person pronoun only. Let's try two examples:

Dave and (I/me) are going fishing. Eliminate the "Dave and." (I/me) am going fishing. I'll bet you don't have any trouble with that one.

The fish always bite for Dave and (I/me). Eliminate the "Dave and." The fish always bite for (I/me). I'll bet you don't have any trouble with that one either.

In summary, if a noun case is appropriate when a noun is used in isolation, that case is also appropriate when that noun is linked in a phrase with another noun.


Question: I run a Science question and answer box at an elementary school, but I try not to turn down any questions. A forth grade student wishes to know why the letter "I" is capitalized (the pronoun).

Answer: The Grammar Hotline is perfectly capable of walking all around a question without answering it when addressing answers to adults, but I try to maintain a higher standard for children. I could give you a bad answer off the top of my head, but a good answer is going to take a little research. I forwarded the question to Walter Meyers, a colleague who specializes in history of the English language, and here is his reply:

I've never seen an answer to this question, and in fact, only recall its being asked once before. I think, unless memory fails me, that one of the many handbooks I've read said in a passing comment that it was capitalized not out of egotism but simply because the lower-case "i" looked so insignificant by itself. This answer seems very doubtful to me, although it must just possibly be true.

In the days before printing, copy in a manuscript was frequently run together without spaces between words, and as single stroke of the pen for a lower-case i could well be mistaken as part of the preceding or following letter. My guess would be that it is capitalized from the Middle Ages on, not because a small "i" looks insignificant but because it so easily caused a misreading.

Since I have no medieval manuscripts around here, I'm not able to verify this, but that's my best guess at the moment.

Professor Meyers's answer strikes me as a more plausible explanation than your surmisal that "I" acts more like a proper noun than a pronoun. In most contexts, "I" is no more a proper noun than other personal pronouns, and the other personal pronouns ( you, he, she, it, we, and they) are not capitalized.

The correct answer for the fourth grader is that nobody knows the true answer to his question. Language is a system of conventions, and conventions are a function of human behavior, which is not always completely explainable.

Many fourth graders go through a phase during which they dot their i's with open circles--or even flowers. The capitalization of "I" may well have started as just such a quirky habit--but it caught on and became conventional usage. It's not right or wrong, it's just conventional. Putting forward an absolute and unqualified explanation for a convention would be unscientific.


Question (From a Ph.D. researcher): A research assistant and I are writing a paper together for a lay audience. In general, he writes very well, but is it grammatically correct to say, "For Who's Job Does the Bell Toll"?

Answer: The short answer is that there is a grammatical error in your projected title. Who's is a contraction meaning who is. The correct form is whose.

The long answer is that you have a moral obligation to keep John Donne from turning over in his grave. Donne was fascinated with the subject of death throughout his life (even climbed into a coffin in a winding sheet to see what it would feel like). Do you want to set a guy like that spinning?

Anyway, the exact quote (from "Meditation XVII") is:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Note that when Ernest Hemingway quoted Donne in the title of his novel, he did not change the wording. His title is For Whom the Bell Tolls.

It is the opinion of the Grammar Hotline that you should not set yourselves up as nervier than Ernest Hemingway. If you want to use this allusion, your title should be: "For Whom the Bell Tolls." Your subtitle can tell the truth--something like "Job Loss in American Industry."

This title is appropriate only if you are bemoaning downsizing and are willing to say that individual job losses are hurting the overall economy. In short, your thesis should be: If a clod be downsized out of a job, the economy is the less. If this is not in fact your thesis, please consider another title.


Question: When is it okay to use myself and yourself in a sentence? My instincts say "as discussed in this morningís conversation with Mr. Jones, Mrs. Jones, and yourself," is wrong.

Answer: You will be gratified to learn that your instincts are right; the example is wrong.

"Self" compounds are something called "reflexive pronouns." A reflexive pronoun refers back to a noun that has already been established. In the example you give, the noun has not been established in the first part of the sentence, so the yourself refers back to nothing. This is a context that calls for a regular pronoun, namely you.

There are many fewer misuses of "self" compounds involving the word yourself than involving the word myself. This is because you has the same form whether it is the subject (nominative case) or direct object (accusative case) of a sentence. The word I, on the other hand, is I in the nominative and me in the accusative. Myself mistakes happen when a spineless speaker is forced to choose between the nominative and accusative and tries to weasel out of it.

Letís try substituting a first-person pronoun in your example: "As discussed in this morningís conversation with Mr. Jones, Mrs. Jones, and myself." There is no call for the reflexive because the noun has not been established. The pronoun is the object of a preposition, and needs to be in the accusative case, thus me. But a speaker who doesnít know whether to use I or me sometimes chooses myself to be on the safe side. This ruse doesnít work. Although myself is not marked for case, it is marked for cowardice. The Grammar Hotline always prefers a bold grammatical error over mumbling uncertainty.

I suppose I am obliged to mention that Merriam-Websterís Dictionary of English Usage says that the use of the reflexive pronoun as a substitute for an ordinary personal pronoun has been fairly common for over four centuries. Iím sure you will jo in me in dismissing this fact with a derisive and superior sniff.


Question (From a Ph.D. researcher): I hear the word myself misused all the time and I know when it is misused, such as "Tom and myself went to the tournament."

I also think I know some examples of when it should be used, such as "I bought myself a book"; or "I gave myself a bad haircut." But when else should myself be used? For example: "I bought this book for (me, myself)." Which is right? I think it should be me, but an editor in the next office says it should be myself.

Answer : Myself, like all "-self" compounds, is a "reflexive pronoun." A reflexive pronoun refers back to a noun that has already been established. The incorrect and correct examples you supply are prime examples of cases where the noun h as not been established (so the reflexive does not apply), and the noun has been established (so the reflexive does apply). The editor in the next office is quite right, though of course you have no obligation to tell him/her that I said so; the correct form is "I bought this book for myself." The subject of the sentence is established; it is "I." This is a case where the reflexive applies, so you choose myself.


Question (From an NCSU administrator): Could you quickly explain when it is appropriate to use which and that? My thought is that which is used for parenthetical phrases and would be preceded by a comma or included within parentheses, like: "My version, which may be shared by Nancy and Kate T., is the correct one, but it is an issue that remains to be seen."

Answer: You have that and which exactly right. That is used to introduce essential clauses that restrict the meaning. Such clauses are not set off in commas. Which is used to introduce nonessential clauses that are nonrestrictive and descriptive (or as you put it "parenthetical," though I suppose you know that they need not be set off in parentheses). Usage is in flux for the use of which. Many British speakers use which to introduce essential clauses. Americans are more straightforward. We continue to prefer that. I recommend trying to substitute that. If it works, use it.


Question (From the Internet): Now to the heart of grammatical darkness: What about that and which?

Answer: In American English, choice of the relative pronoun that or which has traditionally been determined according to the kind of clause or phrase in which the relative pronoun appears.

Traditional grammar books usually prescribe the that/which rule in conjunction with what is called the rule on restrictive or descriptive phrases or clauses. The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual calls this the rule on essential or nonessential phrases or clauses.

The AP rule is approximately this: A phrase or clause is essential (restrictive) if it is critical to a reader's understanding of what the author had in mind. It is not set off in commas. If it begins with a relative pronoun, that pronoun is that.

A phrase or clause is nonessential (descriptive) if it simply provides more information about something. Although the information may be helpful to the reader's comprehension, the reader would not be misled if the information were not there. It is set off in commas. If it begins with a relative pronoun, that pronoun is which.

Here are some examples:

The hurricane that hit Raleigh last September did millions of dollars of damage. (Essential clause tells exactly which hurricane. No commas. Relative pronoun is that.)
Hurricanes, which can be devastatingly destructive, are one of the wonders of nature. (Nonessential clause gives information but does not restrict to a specific hurricane. Commas. Relative pronoun is which.)

Sometimes punctuation and choice of relative pronoun determines meaning. Consider these commands:

Please bring me the dictionary that is on the desk. (There are many dictionaries in the room. I'm directing you to the exact one I want.)
Please bring me the dictionary, which is on the desk. (There is only one dictionary in the room, but I want to save you some time by pointing you in the right direction.)

Few writers break the rule on nonessential phrases or clauses. It seems natural to enclose them in commas and to start them with which. The rule on essential phrases or clauses is, however, quite another story. First, British writers do not dist inguish between that and which in essential clauses. Second, some American writers seem to think that which makes their writing sound more elevated.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage concludes its full page of treatment of this issue this way: "We conclude that at the end of the 20th century, the usage of which and that--at least in prose has pretty much settled down. You can use either which or that to introduce a restrictive clause--the grounds for you choice should be stylistic--and which to introduce a nonrestrictive clause."

The Grammar Hotline recommends, nevertheless, that you look at outcomes. I believe that use of that instead of which to introduce an essential (restrictive) clause almost always clarifies the author's meaning. I thus recommend adhering to the traditional rule on the grounds that it helps clarity.


Question (From a graduate student in the English MA program at NCSU): I recently got a paper back from one of my professors, and I was alarmed to see that she had crossed out the word which several times and written the word that. I have never seen anyone insist on the distinction between these two words, but I looked in Joseph Williams's book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace and, lo and behold, there is such a rule: "Use the relative pronoun that--not which --for restrictive clauses; use which for nonrestrictive clauses" (21).

Williams admits that the rule, first published in 1906, is arbitrary, and that many writers--including authors of style manuals--break the rule. I guess what I'd like is a second opinion on whether this is an important rule--one which (that) I should be teaching my freshman composition students. My own feeling is that it is not important enough to bother with, whether in teaching freshmen or in my own writing.

Answer: The distinction between that and which is observed in American English but not in British English. Your tin ear on this point of style may stem from reading British literature in your graduate classes. If you were looking f or excuses, you might start there. Your question, however, is different: You believe that such a rule exists, and you want to know whether the rule is important.

The answer is yes. The rule is important. Americans observe it fairly consistently, and native speakers almost always get it right--unless they are trying to sound stilted.

Errors of the that/which kind fall into the "A little learning is a dangerous thing" category of grammatical error. Grammarians love them because they are replete with irony. The only speakers who break the rule are the very speakers who ought to know better. It's a strange world, however, if we show our education by unwittingly breaking rules that the less educated seldom break.

Should you teach it to your students? You probably won't have to--unless you have encouraged them to insert it into their papers yourself. Should you observe it in your own writing? As you discovered when you got your paper back, you ignore it at your peril.

Question 2: Thanks for your response. Over the weekend I found this in Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1989): "We conclude that at the end of the 20th century, the usage of which and that--at least in prose--has pretty much settled down. You can use either which or that to introduce a restrictive clause--the grounds for your choice should be stylistic--and which to introduce a non-restrictive clause" (895).

Answer 2: Okay. Let me try again--this time arguing from a rhetorical angle. Failure to distinguish between that or which is a distraction to readers who recognize the difference. Among those readers are professors of English of a certain age who believe that the distinction is important and should be observed. Those who write for those professors as a primary audience should observe the distinction so that their targeted reader will concentrate on the message of their communication rather than on a perceived grammatical error.

How much did your professor's correction of your paper annoy you? How much do you think your professor's correction of your paper distracted her from the subject you wish she had been concentrating on? This is what I mean when I say you ignore this rule at your peril.

Question 3: Good point about how I may be annoying my professors. I agree it's always best to consider one's audience. I was dismayed by her comments because after four years as an undergraduate studying English and journalism, this was the first time anyone had ever corrected me on this point. Now I wonder what else I might be doing wrong?!

Answer 3: One last thought. I hope you noticed the embedded clause in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of American Usage's conclusion: "The grounds for your choice should be stylistic." After time has anesthetized the pain you feel from the bleeding red-ink corrections to that/which on your last paper, read through the corrected sentences both ways. What choice, that or which, introduces a clearer, cleaner restrictive clause? What choice reads better? Merriam Webster bases its conclusion on social-science statistical research. Fine. But this is writing and thought we're talking about here. We might want a higher quality standard. You're the author. How much do you value clarity? Do you think the tha t/which distinction improves clarity?


Question: What verb should I use: interferes or interfere?

No land or structure shall be used for any purpose which causes noxious or offensive odors, gas fumes, smoke, dust, vibration or noise which substantially interferes/interfere with other uses of property.

Answer: Traditionally, when the subject of a sentence or clause is a series of items joined by "or," the verb agrees with the item just before it.

In this case, "which substantially interferes with other uses of property" is a subordinate clause introduced by a relative pronoun, which, which refers back to "noxious or offensive odors, gas fumes, smoke, dust, vibration or noise." Noise is singular, so it takes a singular verb, namely interferes.

That's the answer, as far as it goes. But it's not the reason you're having trouble. You're having trouble because the "which substantially interferes with other uses of property" clause doesn't logically modify "noxious or offensive odors . . ." It logically modifies "any purpose."

There are a couple of ways to fix this. One is to coordinate the two relative clauses. This produces: "No land or structure shall be used for any purpose which causes noxious or offensive odors, gas fumes, smoke, dust, vibration or noise, and which substantially interferes/interfere with other uses of property."

Another is to rewrite to make the relationships clear. This might produce: "No land or structure shall be used for any purpose that substantially interferes with other uses of property. Such uses might include activities that cause noxious or offensive odors, gas fumes, smoke, dust, vibration, or noise."

Whatever option you choose, please note that the proper relative pronoun is that rather than which. This is because the clauses in question are restrictive and essential.

Question 2: You say that that should be used in the sentence rather than which, but there are two whiches in the sentence. Which one do you mean?

Answer: Both.

I'm sorry I was confusing. I'm not exactly sure what you're doing. Are you writing the statute or just interpreting it? My original answer started by assuming the latter, which was why I just supplied the conjunction to clarify the syntactic structure. This produced: "No land or structure shall be used for any purpose which causes noxious or offensive odors, gas fumes, smoke, dust, vibration or noise and which substantially interferes with other uses of property."

This is unambivalent, but retains the wording. It wasn't until I started rewriting that I decided to clean up the mistaken relative pronouns, but I figured this was just a flight of fancy. I should have provided an intermediate stage of rewriting: "No land or structure shall be used for any purpose that causes noxious or offensive odors, gas fumes, smoke, dust, vibration or noise and that substantially interferes with other uses of property."

In other words, to be proscribed by the statute, the activity must do two things: (1) it must cause noxious or offensive odors, gas fumes, smoke, dust, vibration, or noise; (2) it must substantially interfere with other uses of property. This may appear to be broader than the original wording, but it actually is not. The original wording proscribes activities that satisfy (1) only if they also satisfy (2). The edited wording (with the conjunction) proscribes activities only if they both s atisfy (1) and (2). In a negative statement, this is the same subset of activities.

I still think that the final wording comes a lot closer to the probable meaning, but I admit that it broadens it in a way that might be legally problematic: "No land or structure shall be used for any purpose that substantially interferes with other uses of property. Such uses might include activities that cause noxious or offensive odors, gas fumes, smoke, dust, vibration, or noise."


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