Oregon State Bar Bulletin — MAY 2012
The Legal Writer
Primer on Pronouns:
Common Mistakes
By Elizabeth Frost

I am a stickler for proper usage of pronouns, but I haven’t always been this way. Growing up, as I would regale my mother with stories from school, she would interrupt me periodically to say: “She and I, not me and her.” My eyes would roll way back in my head. Who cares, I’d wonder? Couldn’t she understand my point without perfect respect for pronouns?

Well, times have changed. Now I, too, cringe at pronoun slaughter. Admittedly, some hurt more than others. A “their” where there should be an “its” stings a little. “Me and him” as the subject of a sentence makes my eyes bleed. And I die a little when I hear something like “her and I’s.” So to spare us all (really, me) some anguish, here’s a quick primer on a few common pronoun mistakes.

The Basics
Pronouns are used as noun substitutes. Using pronouns helps us avoid clunky repetition. For example, “the victim said she felt dizzy after she was hit” is smoother than “the victim said the victim felt dizzy after the victim was hit.” But pronouns can be tricky because there are so many different types — personal pronouns, possessive pronouns, reflexive pronouns. And the list goes on. Most of us use pronouns correctly without much thought. But even the most astute writers sometimes struggle with plural and possessive pronouns.

Personal Pronouns
The first place writers frequently falter is finding the right personal pronouns to act as a stand-in for a person or thing. The problem is that, just like nouns, personal pronouns are sometimes singular and sometimes plural.

Here’s the rule: if the noun you’re replacing (grammar nerds call this the antecedent) is singular, you must use a singular pronoun. This means you can replace victim in the last section with she. But if multiple victims were all hit on the head, the noun you’d replace — victims — is plural, so you’d use the plural pronoun they. In sum, one person gets replaced with he or she. Multiple people or entitles get replaced with they. But — and here’s where writers most often run into trouble — when you’re writing about an institution, the correct pronoun is it. Take a look at these examples:

Wrong: Apex Manufacturing promised they would open a new warehouse.

Right:Apex Manufacturing promised it would open a new warehouse.

Wrong: The board of directors decided they would elect a new president.

Right: The board of directors decided it would elect a new president.

Both of these incorrect sentences are wrong but for slightly different reasons. In the first example, the noun, Apex Manufacturing, is singular, so it needed to be replaced with a singular pronoun. The second example is a little trickier because the noun — the board of directors — is a collective noun.

Both collective nouns and their cousins, generic nouns, can be misleading. A collective noun is a single unit that may be composed of multiple members, like a board of directors or a jury. A generic noun is a representative member of a group, like every lawyer or any cat show enthusiast. Because these types of nouns seem plural, you may be tempted to replace them with they. But collective and generic nouns should be replaced with singular pronouns. For instance:

Collective Noun:

Wrong: The Senate promised they would address the foreclosure crisis.

Right: The Senate promised it would address the foreclosure crisis.

Generic Noun:

Wrong: Every man is guilty of all the good they didn’t do.

Right: Every man is guilty of all the good he didn’t do.

Possessive Pronouns
This singular-versus-plural problem isn’t unique to personal pronouns. It also plays tricks with possessive pronouns. We use possessive pronouns to indicate ownership. Some possessive pronouns — mine, yours, his, hers, ours, theirs — can stand alone, as in the following sentences:

“The cold office is mine.”

“All the dead plants in the office are hers.”

Other possessive pronouns — my, your, his, her, its, our, their — get paired with nouns to show possession. When a possessive pronoun gets paired with a noun in this way, it becomes an adjective. (Because these pronouns serve double duty, some grammarians prefer to think of these as possessive adjectives.) For example:

My office is cold.”

“All the plants in her office have died.”

In the first example, the possessive pronoun — my — acts like an adjective. It differentiates the cold office from other offices by identifying it as mine, just as corner would differentiate a partner’s office from a junior associate’s interior office. Most writers get this right without much thought.

But just like personal pronouns, possessive pronouns must match the nouns they replace. Although singular possessive pronouns may be fairly uncomplicated, it gets a little trickier when writing about an institution or deciding whether to pair a collective noun with a singular or plural possessive pronoun. Just remember that ownership by a single person or entity is indicated by her, his or its. Ownership by multiple people or entities is indicated by their. Check out these examples to see what I mean:

Wrong: The court will issue their opinion next week.

Right: The court will issue its opinion next week.

Wrong: Everyone tried their best to get the matter resolved.

Right: Everyonetried his best to get the matter resolved.

Some argue that the plural versus singular pronoun rule is archaic, and the distinction is facing extinction. Even grammatical fusspot Bryan Garner suggests that insisting on the distinction is a lost cause after decades of imprecise speech. For example, it’s common to hear someone say something like, “The company announced they are delaying the product launch,” or “the court issued their opinion.”

But in formal writing, with the benefit of time to edit and polish our work, writers can easily get it right with just a bit of thought. For both personal pronouns and possessive pronouns, ask whether the noun refers to one person or entity or to several, and choose the pronoun accordingly. If a singular pronoun seems awkward because of gender (e.g., “everyone tried his or her best”), consider rewriting the sentence to avoid pronouns altogether. Writing incorrectly is simply never your only option.

Possessive Pronouns in the Compound Context
Now that you’ve got the basics of possessive pronouns down, what if you want to express joint ownership? Well, you certainly don’t say “mine and hers” or “her and I’s.” I’m not sure that this particular blaspheme has ever been committed to writing. I don’t even know how “I’s” should be spelled. (It probably shouldn’t have an apostrophe, but there’s no sense polishing the floorboards on a sinking ship). Though this particular mistake may not be common in writing, it pops up frequently in speech. Have you heard someone say something like this recently (or, gasp, said it yourself)?

Jim and I’s meeting is after lunch.

Or, Me and Mary’s depositions went well.

When two people co-own something, you can express that co-possession in one of two ways — with an apostrophe and a noun or with a pronoun. Use one or the other, but not both.

When joint ownership is expressed with possessive pronouns rather than two nouns, do not use an apostrophe with the pronoun. The sentence “Jim and my’s meeting is after lunch” hurts your ears, right? So instead, add the apostrophe to Jim but leave the pronoun alone. “Jim’s and my meeting is after lunch” is correct. The easiest fix, of course, might be to rephrase your sentence and just use our instead, as long as it’s clear from the context who our includes.

The same rule applies to all the possessive pronouns, not just my. At the risk of overburdening Jim, here’s how they would look:

Jim’s and your client will arrive at 3:00.

Jim’s and her brief is due next week.

Jim’s and our trial begins in May.

Jim’s and their vacation will have to be postponed.

Poor Jim.

Misused pronouns are among the most common grammatical mistakes in written and spoken English. (I have no data to support that claim, and it probably isn’t true.) And problems with personal pronouns and possessive pronouns are just the tip of the iceberg. For more tips about pronouns, check the OSB online archives for Suzanne Rowe’s columns on gendered pronouns (June 2007) and general pronoun usage (February/March 2008).


Elizabeth Frost teaches Legal Research and Writing and other drafting courses at the University of Oregon School of Law. She is grateful for Megan McAlpin’s contributions to this article.

An archive of  The Legal Writer articles is available here.

© 2012 Elizabeth Frost

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