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Contributors: Chris Berry, Allen Brizee, Eugene Charles McGregor Boyle III, Rachel Atherton, Elizabeth Geib, Margaret Sheble, Heather Murton.

This section has information about how to use pronouns correctly.

Using Pronouns Clearly

Because a pronoun REFERS to a noun or TAKES THE PLACE OF that noun, you have to use the correct pronoun so that your reader clearly understands which noun your pronoun is referring to.

Therefore, pronouns should:

1. Agree in number

If the pronoun takes the place of a singular noun, you have to use a singular pronoun.

If a student parks a car on campus, he or she has to buy a parking sticker.
(INCORRECT: If a student parks a car on campus, they have to buy a parking sticker.)

Remember: the words everybody, anybody, anyone, each, neither, nobody, someone, a person, etc. are singular and take singular pronouns.

Everybody ought to do his or her best.

   (INCORRECT: their best)

Neither of the girls brought her umbrella.

  (INCORRECT: their umbrellas)

NOTE: Many people find the construction "his or her" wordy, so if it is possible to use a plural noun as your antecedent and thus use "they" as your pronoun, it may be wise to do so. If you do use a singular noun and the context makes the gender clear, then it is permissible to use just "his" or "her" rather than "his or her."

NOTE ALSO: Recently, the use of "they" and "their" as singular pronouns has become more popular. This is due in part to the awkwardness of workarounds like "his or her" and in part to a broader cultural recognition that not all individuals identify themselves with the words "he" or "she." In fact, several official citation resources (including the the Associated Press and the Chicago Manual of Style) now include guidance on this kind of usage. See the OWL's page on the singular "they" for more information.

2. Agree in person

If you are writing in the first person (I), don't confuse your reader by switching to the second person (you) or third person (he, she, they, it, etc.). Similarly, if you are using the second person, don't switch to first or third.

When a person comes to class, he or she should have his or her homework ready.
(INCORRECT: When a person comes to class, you should have your homework ready.)

3. Refer clearly to a specific noun.

Don't be vague or ambiguous.

INCORRECT: Although the motorcycle hit the tree, it was not damaged.

   (Is "it" the motorcycle or the tree?)

INCORRECT: I don't think they should show violence on TV.

   (Who are "they"?)

INCORRECT: Vacation is coming soon, which is nice.

   (What is nice, the vacation or the fact that it is coming soon?)

INCORRECT: George worked in a national forest last summer. This may be his life's work.

   (What word does "this" refer to?)

INCORRECT: If you put this sheet in your notebook, you can refer to it.

   (What does "it" refer to, the sheet or your notebook?)

Contributors: Chris Berry, Allen Brizee, Eugene Charles McGregor Boyle III, Rachel Atherton, Elizabeth Geib, Margaret Sheble, Heather Murton.

This section has information about how to use pronouns correctly.

Pronoun Case

Pronoun Case is really a very simple matter. There are three cases.

Pronouns as Subjects Pronouns as Objects Pronouns that show Possession
I me my (mine)
you you your (yours)
he, she, it him, her, it his, her (hers), it (its)
we us our (ours)
they them their (theirs)
who whom whose


The pronouns This, That, These, Those, and Which do not change form.

Some problems of case:

1. In compound structures, where there are two pronouns or a noun and a pronoun, drop the other noun for a moment. Then you can see which case you want.

Not: Bob and me travel a good deal.
(Would you say, "me travel"?)

Not: He gave the flowers to Jane and I.
(Would you say, "he gave the flowers to I"?)

Not: Us men like the coach.
(Would you say, "us like the coach"?)

2. In comparisons. Comparisons usually follow than or as:

He is taller than I (am tall).

This helps you as much as (it helps) me.

She is as noisy as I (am).

Comparisons are really shorthand sentences which usually omit words, such as those in the parentheses in the sentences above. If you complete the comparison in your head, you can choose the correct case for the pronoun.

Not: He is taller than me.
(Would you say, "than me am tall"?)

3. In formal and semiformal writing:

Use the subjective form after a form of the verb to be.
Formal: It is I.
Informal: It is me.

Use whom in the objective case.
Formal: To whom am I talking?
Informal: Who am I talking to?

Contributors: Chris Berry, Allen Brizee, Eugene Charles McGregor Boyle III, Rachel Atherton, Elizabeth Geib, Margaret Sheble, Heather Murton.

This section has information about how to use pronouns correctly.

Reflexive Pronouns

A reflexive pronoun is a specific type of pronoun that is used for the object of a verb when it refers to the same noun as the subject of that verb. In English, these are the pronouns that end with “­self” or “­selves”: e.g., “himself,” “myself,” “ourselves,” etc.

The following can be considered a rule with regards to reflexive pronouns:

If the object and the subject of a verb are the same, use a reflexive pronoun for the object. Otherwise, do not use one.

Proper Usage

An example of proper usage would be:

Jane shook herself awake.

The meaning of the sentence is fairly clear. Jane was drifting to sleep at a time when she shouldn’t be, possibly during class, so she made a sudden movement in order to stay awake. However, if we were to replace the reflexive pronoun with the standard accusative pronoun “her,” the meaning changes:

Jane shook her awake.

Most English speakers would read this sentence as meaning Jane was shaking someone else, which suggests a different situation entirely.

Improper Usage

A grammatical error that is somewhat common among developing writers is the use of reflexive pronouns when they are not needed, usually in an attempt to appear more formal. Though this does not necessarily impair meaning, it is considered incorrect. An example follows:

If you have questions, e­mail Bob or myself.

There is no need for a reflexive pronoun here, as the person doing the e­mailing (“you”) is not the same as the person being e­mailed. The correct version would be:

If you have questions, email Bob or me.

Note that the reflexive pronoun has been replaced with the first ­person accusative pronoun. The meaning is the same either way, but the first is recognized as incorrect and should be avoided. A good way to determine whether you need to use the reflexive pronoun is to apply the same trick that is usually used to check whether your pronouns should be nominative or accusative ­ break the sentence down. For instance:

If you have questions, e­mail myself.

Freeing the pronoun from the detritus of the rest of the verb’s object makes the problem much clearer. The phrase “e­mail myself” cannot be used in this context, because the only person who can “e­mail myself is “I.” Remember, we only need the reflexive if the subject and the object of the verb are both the same. In this case, the subject is second-person (“you”), and the object is first-person (“myself”), so they can’t be referring to the same individual.


Following the rule stated at the top of this article will steer you right the vast majority of the time. There is, however, one way in which the reflexive pronoun may be used that does not fit into that structure: It can be used to emphasize any noun or pronoun directly preceding it. A well­-known example follows:

And he—he himself—the Grinch carved the roast beast!

This sentence, from the popular children’s book How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss, shows the reflexive pronoun in its use as emphasis. We can tell this is how it is being used because, as you can see, the object and the subject of the verb are very definitely not the same. Thus the reflexive is being used for emphasis only; it is understood that this sentence:

The Grinch carved the roast beast!

is less emphatic than this sentence:

The Grinch himself carved the roast beast!

The usage above, with the reflexive pronoun included, implies that there is something unusual or notable about that particular individual being involved. In short, the reflexive pronoun, when used in this way instead of the “proper usage” as explained above, directs the sentence’s emphasis and therefore the reader’s focus towards the noun to which the pronoun refers, indicating that it is in some way worthy of extra attention. (The original text above is an example of this same principle being applied to excess.) 

Works Cited

Dr. Seuss. How The Grinch Stole Christmas. New York: Random House, 1957. Print.

Contributors: Chris Berry, Allen Brizee, Eugene Charles McGregor Boyle III, Rachel Atherton, Elizabeth Geib, Margaret Sheble, Heather Murton.

This section has information about how to use pronouns correctly.

Gendered Pronouns & Singular “They”

What is a pronoun? Why do people use different ones? Why are he and she not enough?

Linguistically, pronouns are words used to refer to people by replacing proper nouns, like names. A pronoun can refer to either a person talking or a person who is being talked about. Common pronouns include they/them/theirs, she/her/hers, and he/him/his. Pronouns indicate the gender of a person; traditionally, he refers to males while she refers to females. The English language does not have a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun, but in recent years they has gained considerable traction in this role. They has been officially recognized as correct by several key bodies such as the Associated Press and the Chicago Manual of Style. This is important for people whose genders are neither male nor female, as well as to avoid defaulting to he in regular use.


What is gender inclusive language? What does it have to do with the OWL?

Historically, the OWL has had resources on gender inclusive language that mainly focus on incorporating women into general language—for instance, using “he or she” or just “she as the pronoun for a general subject, rather than always defaulting to “he. Now, the conversation on gender inclusive language has expanded further to include people whose genders are neither male nor female (e.g., gender-nonconforming, gender-neutral, genderfluid, genderqueer, or nonbinary individuals, though this list is not exhaustive). In basic terms, this means that he and she are not sufficient to describe the genders of all people, because not all people are either male or female. As such, the phrase “he or she” does not cover the full range of persons.

The alternative pronoun most commonly used is they, often referred to as singular they. Here’s an example:

Someone left his or her backpack behind. → Someone left their backpack behind.

Since we don’t know the gender of the person who left their backpack behind, we use they to include all genders as possibilities for that mystery person. In addition to being respectful of people of all genders, this makes the sentence shorter and easier to say. In fact, almost all of us use this language on a regular basis without even thinking about it.

While they is already a common part of the English language, especially while speaking, there are other third-person singular pronouns in use that you may encounter in writing. Some of these include zie/zim/zir and sie/sie/hir. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's LGBT Center has a chart with more options, but even this is not exhaustive.


Some things to keep in mind when using gender-inclusive pronouns:

Introducing Your Pronouns: If you are unsure of how to best ask for someone’s pronouns, you could introduce yourself and the pronouns you use. Thus, you invite the individual to give their pronouns as well if they so choose. For example:

Hello, my name is [insert], and my pronouns are she/her/hers; he/him/his; or they/them/theirs; etc.

Privacy: The main thing one should avoid is making assumptions about an individual’s gender identity. There is a small danger of outing someone who is trans or nonbinary who might not want that information disclosed. Pay attention to the situation and to how people refer to themselves. Ask everyone what pronouns they use (even if you think you know). Try to get into the habit of introducing yourself and your pronouns.

Mistakes Happen: As long as you are earnestly putting forth effort to be respectful to someone’s pronouns, small mistakes can be forgiven as long as you learn from them. Being aware of gender pronouns expresses to individuals that you are an ally. People are allowed to be people and ask how to be addressed since that is inherently their right.


Why should we use this kind of language?

Isn’t this incorrect grammar?

In short, no. Grammar shifts and changes over time; for instance, the clunky he or she that a singular they replaces is actually a fairly recent introduction into the language. Singular they has been used for a long time and is used in most casual situations; you probably do it yourself without realizing it. We are simply witnessing a reorientation of the rule, mostly with the intention of including more people in language.

When individuals whose gender is neither male nor female (e.g. nonbinary, agender, genderfluid, etc.) use the singular they to refer to themselves, they are using the language to express their identities. Adopting this language is one way writers can be inclusive of a range of people and identities.

Isn’t this political?

Conversations around gender and sexuality have always been political, as Dr. John d’Emilio, Professor of History and Gender and Women's Studies Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has discussed in his numerous publications, which have impacted national public policy. However, using gender-inclusive language and gender-neutral pronouns is not just a move for the sake of political correctness. As mentioned above, these practices are becoming officially recognized by language organizations and other official bodies. Recently, the Chicago Manual Style and the Associated Press (AP) style book have both announced that they will be accepting they/them/their as an example of a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun. The American Dialect Society crowned singular they its word of the year in 2015. That same year, the Oxford Dictionaries website added the honorific Mx, defining it as "a title used before a person's surname or full name by those who wish to avoid specifying their gender or by those who prefer not to identify themselves as male or female” (OED Online).

Is this just a trend?

Gender neutral pronouns were not invented in the modern period—they have a vast and long history. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for a gender-neutral, indefinite they is from about 1375 from the romance of William of Palerne. The use of they as an indefinite pronoun which refers to people in general has been used even longer. They appears in 1382 in Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible. Additionally,in Much Ado about Nothing, Shakespeare uses they in the line, “To strange sores, strangely they straine the cure” (see OED Online).

However, it has only been recently, with the changing conception of gender and society’s growing acceptance of non-binary individuals, that gender-neutral pronouns have been more widely discussed.


How can I learn more about gender inclusive language?

The Chicago Manual of Style on Singular They

Oxford Dictionary Entry for They

NCTE Position Statement on Gender-Fair Use of Language

American Dialect Society on singular They as 2015 word of the year

University of Wisconsin-Madison on Using Gender–Neutral Pronouns in Academic Writing


You might also be interested in these resources:

LGBTQ+ Center at Purdue's Terminology List

University of Minnesota's List of Nonbinary Gender Pronouns

American Psychological Association (APA) LGBT Resources and Publications


Works Cited

“They, pron., adj., adv., and n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017.