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Write Clearly: Grammar

Note about this guide

In this guide, bold font and parentheses are used to draw attention to pronouns. Screen Reader Users: Please set your program's punctuation level to 'most' or 'all' in order to hear the content in parentheses.

1. A pronoun must agree in person and number with the noun to which it refers.

A pronoun (e.g., I, me, she, herself, you, it, that, they, many, who, whoever, whose) replaces a noun. A pronoun must agree in person (I, he, it, they, etc.) and number (singular or plural) with the noun to which it refers.

They/them/their/theirs and other non-binary/gender-neutral pronouns can be used either when the gender of a person is not known or when a person chooses a non-binary pronoun as a gender marker for themselves. The American Dialect Society named the singular “they” the word of the year in 2015. Writers are increasingly using “they” as a singular pronoun to be more inclusive. Learn more about gendered pronouns and singular "they."

Remember that “who” and “whom” are used to refer to people, and “that” and “which” refer to everything else.

Examples:

  • Sebastian took his (pronoun) work home with him (pronoun).
  • Sebastian and Hamed worked hard on their (pronoun) projects.
  • Neither John nor his parents enjoyed their (pronoun) afternoon.
    • Note that the pronoun agrees with the subject closest to it – as with subject-verb agreement with or and nor.
  • The woman who (pronoun) looks happy voted for an increase in pay.
  • The trees that (pronoun) grow in these woods are healthy.
  • Each apple was chosen for its (pronoun) rosy appearance.
  • The students must finish their (pronoun) work by Friday.;
  • Jaxson must finish their (pronoun) work by Friday.

2. All pronouns must clearly refer to the noun they replace.

When you use a pronoun in a sentence, the reader should be able to clearly identify which noun you are replacing. Below is an example of an unclear versus clear sentence: 

  • Unclear: Our patients are enjoying the warm days while they (pronoun) last.
    • Does they refer to patients lasting or to the days lasting?
  • Clear: While the warm days last, our patients are enjoying them. 

3. Do not mix “persons” (i.e., second person “you” with third person “he/she/it”).

When you use two pronouns in a sentence to replace the same noun, these pronouns should be identical. Below are examples of unclear versus clear sentences:

  • Unclear: To improve one’s (pronoun) stroke, you (pronoun) have to learn the basics. 
  • Clear: To improve one’s (pronoun) stroke, one (pronoun) has to learn the basics.
  • Clear: To improve your (pronoun) stroke, you (pronoun) have to learn the basics.

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