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Style Manual

Pronouns

Pronouns replace other words. People will find content easier to read when pronouns match their context.

Pronouns stand in for other words

Pronouns stand in for nouns. They stand in for groups of words that function as nouns (noun phrases and noun clauses). They can also act like determiners.

Example

I, he, she, they, it

myself, yourself, ourselves

who, which, that

any, several

Pronouns can be singular or plural.

Example

I, we

she, they

me, us

Types of pronouns function as different types of words

There are 6 main types of pronouns:

  • Personal pronouns replace the names of people or things. They include ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘it’, ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘she’, ‘her’, ‘he’ and ‘him’.
  • Reflexive pronouns reflect the action of the verb back to the subject. They include ‘myself’, ‘ourselves’, ‘itself’, ‘themself’, ‘themselves’, ‘herself’ and ‘himself’.
  • Relative pronouns refer to nouns that are already known from the context. They include ‘who’, ‘whom’, ‘whose’, ‘which’ and ‘that’.
  • Interrogative pronouns ask questions. They include ‘what’, ‘which’, ‘who’, ‘whom’ and ‘whose’.
  • Demonstrative pronouns specify which noun you are referring to. They include ‘this’, ‘that’, ‘these’ and ‘those’.
  • Indefinite pronouns don’t specify quantity or number. They include ‘any’, ‘each’, ‘several’ and ‘some’.

Some pronouns can work as other types of words. For example, ‘my’, ‘his’, ‘hers’, ‘our’, ‘their’ and ‘your’ work as determiners.

Example

I gave her the report. She gave me a card. [Personal pronouns]

I told myself I could finish on time. [Reflexive pronoun]

The person who wrote the report has left. [Relative pronoun]

Who left the lights on in the office? [Interrogative pronoun]

This is mine. That one is yours. [Demonstrative pronouns]

Do you have any feedback? Yes, I have some. [Indefinite pronouns]

Singular pronouns have a gender-neutral form. Use the forms:

  • ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’
  • ‘them’ instead of ‘him’ or ‘her’
  • ‘their’ instead of ‘his’ or ‘hers’.

Pronouns take different forms depending on their function

The form of a pronoun will change depending on whether it is the subject or the object of the verb. This is the ‘case’ of the pronoun.

A pronoun used as the subject in a sentence is in the subjective case (for example, ‘I’, ‘they’).

A pronoun used as the object in a sentence is in the objective case (for example, ‘me’, ‘them’).

Example

I emailed them. [‘I’ is the subject and ‘them’ is the object.]

They emailed me. [‘They’ is the subject and ‘me’ is the object.]

The singular ‘they’ is gender-neutral. It takes the singular form of the verb.

Use the correct case when writing pronouns. Check whether the pronoun should be in the subjective or the objective case – whether it is the subject or object.

Correct

My colleague and I travelled with the delegation.

My manager sent their director and me an email.

Incorrect

My colleague and me travelled with the delegation.

My manager sent their director and I an email.

Sentences can have reflexive pronouns when the subject is also the object of the verb.

Example

The manager emailed themself. [‘Themself’ is the object but refers to ‘the manager’, which is the subject.]

Don’t use a reflexive pronoun if the subject and the object are not the same person or thing.

Correct

I emailed myself.

Incorrect

The manager emailed myself.

Don’t use reflexive pronouns such as ‘yourself’ and ‘myself’ as the subject of the verb.

Correct

My colleague and I travelled with the delegation.

Incorrect

My colleague and myself travelled with the delegation.

Relative pronouns show essential or non-essential information

To make your writing clear, use:

  • ‘that’ for essential information
  • ‘which’, with commas, for non-essential information.
Example

The farm that produces oats is for sale. [The only farm that is for sale is the one that produces oats.]

The farm, which produces oats, is for sale. [The farm, which happens to produce oats, is for sale.]

Choosing between relative pronouns can be a matter of style in some situations, depending on voice and tone. It is important to show users whether information is essential or non-essential by using commas.

Release notes

The digital edition relates grammatical concepts to the principles of plain language. It relates word choice to grammatical information about types of words.

It provides an overview on types of words to introduce grammatical concepts about parts of speech and how they relate to sentence structure.

The sixth edition called types of words ‘word classes’. It had summary information about parts of speech on pages 68 to 70. This formed part of Chapter 5 on grammar.

The digital edition consolidates information about pronouns. It gives an overview of the types of pronouns and highlights common cases of incorrect use. Some of the information covered in the sixth edition – for example, gender-neutral pronouns – is relevant to inclusive language for gender and sexual diversity.

The Content Guide did not have any in-depth information on grammatical concepts. It recommended avoiding use of gender-specific pronouns, consistent with advice in this edition of Style Manual to use gender-neutral language. It also had some information on using pronouns for tone.

About this page

References

Canberra Society of Editors (2000) A singular use of THEY, Canberra Society of Editors website, accessed 20 February 2020.

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019a) Course notes and exercises: English grammar for writers, editors and policymakers, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Dixon JC and Bolitho B (2005–2019b) Report writing, Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Explorations of Style (28 February 2012), ‘Commas and relative clauses’, Explorations of Style blog, accessed 13 October 2020.

Murphy EM with Cadman H (2014) Effective writing: plain English at work, 2nd edn, Lacuna, Westgate.

Seely J (2001) Oxford everyday grammar, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Stilman A (2004) Grammatically correct, Writer’s Digest Books, Ohio.

Truss L (2003) Eats, shoots and leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation, Profile Books, London.

This page was updated Tuesday 13 October 2020.

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