Nouns and Pronouns

Nouns and pronouns come in different types and forms that can lead to errors.  Nouns can be counting or mass nouns, and each type requires a particular set of adjectives.  The main source of trouble, however, is the fact that nouns and especially pronouns change according to their case.

Case    Who vs. whom Possessive
Pronoun-antecedent agreement
That vs. which
Who vs. that

Counting vs. Mass Nouns
Nouns come in two types, depending on whether they refer to things that constitute divisible units.  Counting nouns refer to things can be separated out; mass nouns, as the name implies, refer to masses.  The best way to explain this distinction is to give some examples:

     Counting noun: pencil (you can have one pencil or many pencils)
     Mass noun: water (water comes as a mass; you can't have one or many)

Consider the differences between the words referring to quantity that you use with each type; always be sure to use the right ones:

Counting Noun (e.g., pencil or pencils)
Mass Noun (e.g., water)
Quantity number
Large quantity many much
Small quantity few little
Smaller quantity fewer less

Thus, it is incorrect to say, "amount of pencils" or "less pencils"; after all, no one would say, "number of water" or "fewer water."  "More" works for both kinds.

Just as verbs change according to things like tense and voice, nouns and pronouns change according to their case and to their number (i.e., singular or plural).  There are three important cases:

     subjective (or nominative): the noun or pronoun performs the action ("does the verb")
     possessive (or genitive): the noun or pronoun owns something, or something else is "of" it
     objective (or accusative): the noun or pronoun receives the action

Nouns don't differ in the subjective or objective cases, but they change in the possessive case.  Pronouns vary far more according to case, and there are a few situations that can cause some confusion.

Subjective vs. Objective

You won't have any problems with nouns in the subjective or objective case; they remain the same:

     The student wrote the exam well.
     I passed the student.

Pronouns, however, differ greatly depending on case.  Here are the personal pronouns in both subjective and objective cases:

Singular - Subjective
Singular  - Objective
Plural - Subjective
Plural - Objective

Some examples:

I (subjective) invited them (objective).
They (subjective) invited her (objective).
We (subjective) invited him (objective).
She (subjective) read it (objective).

Students often have trouble with multiple subjects and objects.  The reason is that somewhere along the line, they heard somebody say, "`John and me' is wrong."  It isn't always wrong.  Consider the following:

     John and [I/me] invited Sandra to the party.
     Sandra invited John and [I/me] to the party.

Which is the correct pronoun to use in each case (so to speak)?  To find the answer, consider what would be the proper case if you eliminated "John and":

     [I/Me] invited Sandra to the party.
     Sandra invited [I/me] to the party.

In the first sentence, both "John" and "I" are the subjects ("doers") of the verb "invited"; in the second, "John" and "me" are the objects ("receivers") of the action.

     John and I invited Sandra to the party.
     Sandra invited John and me to the party.

Who vs. whom

People often don't know the difference between "who" and "whom"; some even imagine that "whom" is a fancier way of saying "who" and is therefore preferred in formal papers.  The real difference is quite simple:

     who is the subjective form of the pronoun
     whom is the objective form

In other words, "who" does the action; "whom" receives the action.  One way to remember the difference is to note a pattern in English pronouns.  Look at the chart above: you'll see that three pronouns in the objective case are spelled with the letter "m"--me, him, and them.  One trick is to do a simple substitution: you should always be able to replace "who" with "he" or "they" and "whom" with "him" (leaving aside questions of gender) or "them":

     Tom is the person who is coming to the party. (he is coming to the party)
     Tom is the person whom I invited to the party. (I invited him to the party)
     They are the students who passed the exam. (they passed the exam)
     They are the students whom I passed. (I passed them)

If you simply cannot figure out which to use, let's just say that a mistaken "who" is better than a mistaken "whom"...

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Two things cause problems for writers using the possessive.  One is that in most cases the plural and the possessive are both formed by adding the letter "s"; the other is that some possessives use apostrophes and some don't.

Plurals vs. possessives

Plurals are always formed without an apostrophe, even if you're talking about a set of years or a family; just add "s" or "es":

     the classes
     the 1960s
     the Smiths
     the Joneses

Possessives are almost always formed using apostrophes.  For singular nouns, the apostrophe comes before the "s":

     the book's cover
     the table's legs
     the class's grades

If the noun forms a regular plural--in other words, if the plural is formed by adding "s" or "es"--the apostrophe in the possessive comes after the "s":

     the books' covers
     the tables' legs
     the classes' grades

If the noun forms an irregular plural, add an apostrophe and an "s" at the end:

     children's books
     people's wishes

Don't confuse possessives with "ies" plurals:

     our society's condition (singular and possessive)
     the condition of many societies (plural)
     the societies' goals (plural and possessive)

Possessives of personal pronouns; it's vs. its

Unlike nouns, personal pronouns form possessives without apostrophes:

     his, hers, yours, theirs

The same is true of "it": the possessive is "its" (no apostrophe)
Remember: it's = the contraction of "it is"

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Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement

An antecedent is the noun that a pronoun refers to.  Pronoun-antecedent agreement means that the pronoun must agree with--or match--the antecendent that it refers to in number.  If the antecedent is singular, the pronoun must be singular, too; if it's plural, then the pronoun must also be plural. The sentence can make it a bit unclear whether the antecedent is singular or plural. Consider the following sentence:

     He is one of the people who [is/are] going to the party.

Is "who" singular or plural?  It's clear that it does not refer to "he" but to "people" and is therefore plural, so the correct verb is "are."  If you were to specify the individual in some way--perhaps by saying "he is the one"--then the "who" would be singular.

One common difficulty arises when we use personal pronouns like "he," "she," and "they." At one time, we used male pronouns to refer to any unknown person:

     The average person wants to know what is expected of him in his job.

That is clearly sexist. The solution has been to say "he or she," "him or her," and so on for the singular nouns, and treat "they," "them," and "their" as only for plural nouns:

     Every student wants to get a good mark in his or her exam.

However, the question of  pronouns has become more complicated now, as many people identify as non-binary, so it has become more acceptable to use "they," "them," and "their" for an individual. Use care in dealing with the issue, and when you know what pronouns an individual prefers, use them.

In some cases, the best thing to do is to change the antecedent to plural:

    People want to know what is expected of them in their jobs.
    All the students want to do well in their essays.

Unclear Pronoun Reference (UPR):

Be sure that your pronoun refers to a clear antecedent, not an entire clause or other vague thing:

     The Creature is a wretched being, which leads to a life of solitude and desperation.

It's virtually impossible to pinpoint exactly what "which" is referring to.  Try to be specific:

     The Creature is a wretched being, a condition that leads to a life of solitude and desperation.

For "which" and "that," see below.

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Relative Pronouns:

There is a group of pronouns known as relative pronouns; they introduce relative clauses.  Some are personal pronouns:


Some are impersonal ones:


If you use a relative pronoun, be sure to use a personal one if you refer to a person or people, and an impersonal one to refer to a thing or things:

He is the person who is going to the party NOT  He is the person that is going is going to the party

That vs. which

These two pronouns are often used interchangeably.  They should be used for different circumstances: use "that" if the clause it introduces is restrictive, and "which" if it is nonrestrictive.  Is the clause absolutely necessary for the sentence (restrictive), or does it just provide extra, nonessential information (nonrestrictive)?  In the first sentence below, the "that" clause is essential to the meaning; in the second, the "which" clause can be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence:

     The team that scores the most goals wins. (restrictive)
     The team, which scored fifty goals this season, set a new record. (nonrestrictive)

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