Grammar

How to Avoid Pronoun Shifts

Every single one of us has shifted pronouns while speaking or writing.

Shift? Pronoun? What’s a pronoun again?

A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun.
She, herself, it, and this are examples of pronouns. If we substituted pronouns for the nouns in the sentence “Please give the present to Karen,” it would read “Please give it to her.”

“pronoun”. The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. 13 Mar. 2016. <Dictionary.com http://www.dictionary.com/browse/pronoun>.

If you would like to see an exhaustive list of pronouns, which are subdivided in different categories, click here.

Let me give you an example of pronoun shift.

Sandra had an appointment at the bank and they denied her loan application.

Can you spot the issues?

  1. The sentence should have an object since the second clause refers to people (an appointment with whom?), “at the bank” only provides the location of the appointment.
  2. The pronoun “they” comes out of thin air; there is no plural antecedent. Who are “they”? The only way to find the unwritten reference is to infer that “they” were the loan officers, and even at that, you cannot know; the text does not give you the information. For all we know, the bank director could have denied her application.

A correct sentence would read like this: Sandra had an appointment with loan officers at the bank and they denied her loan application.

The example above illustrates a shift in number. The second example is one of a shift in person.

Carlton likes to visit remote places where you don’t see another person for as long as you want. (Shift from the third person singular, Carlton, to second person singular, you.)

Carlton likes to visit remote places where he does not see another person for as long as he wants.

Pronoun shifts are a grammatical mistake. Contrary to mass opinion, a widely-spread erroneous use of pronouns does not make pronoun shifts acceptable. As the function of a pronoun is to replace a noun,  it has to agree with its antecedent. Both the writer and the reader must know what the antecedent is. In other words, the noun needs to be written somewhere, preferably in the same sentence or the previous ones.

How to avoid pronoun shifts

The grammar lessons you were taught in school should resurface each time you sit down to write. Here are some pointers to help you avoid this mistake.

Avoid pronoun shifts  v2

Pronoun Agreement with Indefinite Nouns and Pronouns

The pronouns listed below, even though they refer to a group, are singular in nature.

  • Anybody, every, no one, someone
  • Anyone, everybody, nobody, something
  • Each, everyone, none
  • Either, neither, somebody

They are known as indefinite pronouns. If the group is of mix gender, you have to use “he or she” or “him or her”.

E.g. Everybody who hears Mason sing has his or her own way of telling his parents that he is so expressive, he would make a good actor.

Using “they” – shifting from singular to plural – is incorrect.

I will be addressing other “shift issues” in the coming months.

If would you like to know more shifts, visit the English Grammar Handbook (powered by Athabasca University).

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