Troubles With Pronouns
From The Handling Of Words a chapter in The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers (1954)

"The use of pronouns", said Cobbett, "is to prevent the repetition of nouns, and to make speaking and writing more rapid and less encumbered with words".

In more than one respect they are difficult parts of speech to handle.

(1) It is an easy slip to use a pronoun without a true antecedent.

He offered to resign but it was refused.

Here it has not a true antecedent, as it would have had if the sentence had begun "he offered his resignation". This is a purely grammatical point, but unless care is taken over it a verbal absurdity may result. Cobbett gives this example from Addison:

There are indeed but very few who know how to be idle and innocent, or have a relish of any pleasures that are not criminal; every diversion they take is at the expense of some one virtue or other, and their very first step out of business is into vice or folly.

As Cobbett points out, the only possible antecedent to they and their is the "very few who know how to be idle and innocent", and that is the opposite of what Addison means.

(2) Be sure that there is no real ambiguity about the antecedent. This is more than a grammatical point; it affects the intelligibility of what you write. Special care is needed when the pronouns are he and him, and more than one male person has been mentioned. Latin is sensible enough to have two pronouns for he and him, one of which is used only when referring to the subject of the sentence; but English affords no such aids.

Stevenson lamented this and said:

When I invent a language there shall be a direct and an indirect pronoun differently declined—then writing would be some fun.
Him Tum
His Tus
Example: He seized turn by tus throat; but tu at the same time caught him by his hair. A fellow could write hurricanes with an inflection like that. Yet there would be difficulties too. (34)

Handicapped as we are by the lack of this useful artifice, we must be careful to leave no doubt about the antecedents of our pronouns, and must not make our readers guess, even though it may not be difficult to guess right. As Jespersen points out, a sentence like "John told Robert's son that he must help him" is theoretically capable of six different meanings. It is true that Jespersen would not have us trouble overmuch when there can be no real doubt about the antecedent, and he points out that there is little danger of misunderstanding the theoretically ambiguous sentence:

If the baby does not thrive on raw milk, boil it.

Nevertheless, he adds, it is well to be very careful about one's pronouns.

Here are one or two examples, to show how difficult it is to avoid ambiguity:

Mr. S. told Mr. H. he was prepared to transfer part of his allocation to his purposes provided that he received £10,000.

The his before purposes refers, it would seem, to Mr. H. and the other three pronouns to Mr. S.

Mr. H. F. saw a man throw something from his pockets to the hens on his farm, and then twist the neck of one of them when they ran to him.

Here the change of antecedent from "the man" to Mr. H. F. and back again to "the man" is puzzling at first.

There are several possible ways of removing ambiguities such as these. Let us take by way of illustration the sentence,

"Sir Henry Ponsonby informed Mr. Gladstone that the Queen had been much upset by what he had told her"

and let us assume that the ambiguous he refers to Mr. Gladstone. We can make the antecedent plain by

1. Not using a pronoun at all, and writing "by what Mr. Gladstone had told her".

2. Parenthetic explanation — "by what he (Mr. Gladstone) had told her".

3. The former-latter device — "by what the latter had told her".

4. By rewriting the sentence — "The Queen was much upset by what Mr. Gladstone told her, and Sir Henry Ponsonby so informed him".

5. The device that Henry Sidgwick called "the polite alias" and Fowler "elegant variation", and writing (say) "by what the Prime Minister had told her", or the "G.O.M." or "the veteran statesman".

It may safely be said that the fifth device should seldom if ever be adopted, (35) and the third only when the antecedent is very close.

(3) Do not be shy of pronouns.
So far we have been concerned in this section with the dangers that beset the user of pronouns. But for the official no less a danger is that of not using them when he ought. Legal language, which must aim above all things at removing every possible ambiguity, is more sparing of pronouns than ordinary prose, because of an ever-present fear that the antecedent may be uncertain. For instance, opening at random an Act of Parliament, I read:

The Secretary of State may by any such regulations allow the required notice of any occurrence to which the regulations relate, instead of being sent forthwith, to be sent within the time limited by the regulations.

Anyone not writing legal language would have avoided repeating regulations twice; he would have but they in the first place and them in the second.

Officials have so much to read and explain that is written in legal English that they become infected with pronoun-avoidance. The result is that what they write is often, in Cobbett's phrase, "more encumbered with words" than it need be.

The examiner's search would in all cases be carried up to the date of the filing of the complete specification, and the examiner (he) need not trouble his head with the subject of disconformity.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries are anxious that the Rural Land Utilisation Officer should not in any way hinder the acquisition or earmarking of land for educational purposes, but it is the duty of the Rural Land Utilisation Officer (his duty) to ensure...
Arrangements are being made to continue the production of these houses for a further period, and increased numbers of these houses (them) will, therefore, be available.

Often the repeated word is embroidered by such:

the admission of specially selected Public Assistance cases, provided that no suitable accommodation is available for such cases (them) in a home.

This also is no doubt due to infection by legal English, where this use of such is an indispensable device for securing economy of words. The draftsman, whose concern is to make his meaning certain beyond the possibility of error, avoids pronouns lest there should be an ambiguity about their antecedents, but escapes the need for repeating words of limitation by the use of such or such.., as aforesaid. The official need not usually be so punctilious.

But using such in the way the lawyers use it is not always out of place in ordinary writing. Sometimes it is proper and useful.

One month's notice in writing must be given to terminate this agreement. As no such notice has been received from you....

Here it is important for the writer to show that in the second sentence he is referring to the same sort of notice as in the first and the such device is the neatest way of doing it.

(4) It It is usually better not to allow a pronoun to precede its principal. If the pronoun comes first the reader may not know what it refers to until he arrives at the principal.

I regret that it is not practicable, in view of its size, to provide a list of the agents.

Here, it is true, the reader is only momentarily left guessing what its refers to. But he would have been spared even that if the sentence had been written:

I regret that it is not practicable to provide a list of the agents; there are too many of them.

(5) Each other Grammarians used to say that each other is the right expression when only two persons or things are referred to and one another when there are more than two. But Fowler, quoted with approval by Jespersen, says of this so-called rule, "This differentiation is neither of present utility nor based on historical usage".

(6) Former and latter. Do not hesitate to repeat words rather than use former or latter to avoid doing so. The reader probably has to look back to see which is which, and so you annoy him and waste his time. And there is no excuse at all for using latter merely to serve as a pronoun, as in:

In these employments we would rest our case for the exclusion of young persons directly on the grounds of the latter's moral welfare. (Their moral welfare.)

Remember that former and latter can refer to only two things and if you use them of more than two you may puzzle your reader. If you want to refer otherwise than specifically to the last of more than two things, say last or last-mentioned, not latter.

(7) I and me About the age-long conflict between it is I and it is me, no more need be said than that, in the present stage of the battle, most people would think "it is I" pedantic in talk and "it is me" improper in writing.

What calls more for examination is the practice of using 1 for me in combination with some noun or other pronoun, e.g. "between you and I", "let you and I go". Why this has become so prevalent is not easy to say. Perhaps it comes partly from an excess of zeal in correcting the opposite error. When Mrs. Elton said "Neither Mr. Suckling nor me had ever any patience with them", and Lydia Bennet "Mrs. Forster and me are such friends", they were guilty of a vulgarism that was, no doubt, common in Jane Austen's day, and is not unknown to-day. One might suppose that this mistake was corrected by teachers of English in our schools with such ferocity that their pupils are left with the conviction that such combinations as you and me are in all circumstances ungrammatical. But that will not quite do. It might explain a popular broadcaster's saying "that's four to Margaret and I", but it cannot explain why Shakespeare wrote: "All debts are cleared between you and I". (36)

It is the combination of oneself with someone else that proves fatal. The official who wrote: "I trust that it will be convenient to you for my colleague and I to call upon you next Tuesday" would never, if he had been proposing to come alone, have written "I trust that it will be convenient to you for I to call upon you....". A sure and easy way of avoiding this blunder is to ask oneself what case the personal pronoun would have been in — would it have been I or me — if it had stood alone. It should remain the same in partnership as it would have been by itself.

The association of someone else with oneself sometimes prompts the use of myself where a simple I or me is all that is needed, e.g. "The inspection will be made by Mr. Jones and myself". Myself should be used only for emphasis ("I saw it myself") or as the reflexive form of the personal pronoun ("I have hurt myself").

(8) It This pronoun is specially troublesome because the convenient English idiom of using it to anticipate the subject of a sentence tends to produce a plethora of its. A correspondent sends me this example:

It is to be expected that it will be difficult to apply A unless it is accompanied by B, for which reason it is generally preferable to use C in spite of its other disadvantages.

This, he justly says, could be put more effectively and tersely by writing:

C is generally preferable, in spite of its disadvantages, because application of A without B is difficult.
"Never put an it on paper", said Cobbett, "without thinking well what you are about. When I see many its on a paper I always tremble for the writer."

(9) One

(a) One has a way of intruding in such a sentence as "The problem is not an easy one". "The problem is not easy" may be a neater way of saying what you mean.

(b) What pronoun should be used with one? His or one's, for example? That depends on what sort of a one it is, whether "numeral" or "impersonal", to use Fowler's labels. Fowler illustrates the difference thus:

One hates his enemies and another forgives them (numeral).
One hates one's enemies and loves one's friends (impersonal).

But any sentence that needs to repeat the impersonal one is bound to be inelegant, and you will do better to rewrite it.

(c)"One of those who... ." A common error in sentences of this sort is to use a singular verb instead of a plural, as though the antecedent of who were one and not those — to write, for instance, "It is one of the exceptional cases that calls for (instead of call for) exceptional treatment".

(10) Same Four hundred years ago, when the Thirty-nine Articles were drawn up, it was good English idiom to use the same as a pronoun where we should now say he or she, him or her, they or them, or it.

The riches and goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right title and possession of the same, as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast.

This is no good reason for the present pronominal use of the same and same, which survives robustly in commercialese. It is to be found to some extent in official writing also, especially in letters on business subjects. This use of same is now by general consent reprehensible because it gives an air of artificiality and pretentiousness.

ExampleAlternative Version
As you have omitted to insert your full Christian names, I shall be glad if you will advise me of same,As you have omitted to insert your full Christian names, I shall be glad if you will let me know what they are.
With reference to the above matter, and my representative's interview of the 12th October, relative to same...With reference to this matter and my representative's interview of the 12th October about it...
I enclose the necessary form for agreement and shall be glad if you will kindly complete and return same at your early convenience.(For same substitute it.)

In the following sentence,

I am informed that it may be decided by X Section that this extra will not be required. I await therefore their decision before taking further action in an attempt to provide,

I like to think that the writer stopped abruptly after provide, leaving it objectless, in order to check himself on the brink of writing same. But he might harmlessly have written it.

(11) They for he or she It is common in speech, and not unknown in serious writing, to use they or them as the equivalent of a singular pronoun of a common sex, as in: "Each insisted on their own point of view, and hence the marriage came to an end". This is stigmatised by grammarians as a usage grammatically indefensible. The Judge ought, they would say, to have said "He insisted on his own point of view and she on hers". Jespersen says about this:

In the third person it would have been very convenient to have a common-sex pronoun, but as a matter of fact English has none and must therefore use one of the three makeshift expedients shown in the following sentences:

The reader's heart — if he or she have any. (Fielding.)
He that hath ears to hear let him hear. (A.V.)
Nobody prevents you, do they? (Thackeray.)

The official writer will be wise for the present to use the first or second, and not to be tempted by the greater convenience of the third, though necessity may eventually force it into the category of accepted idiom. The Ministry of Labour and National Service have adopted another device, but it is an ugly one, suitable only for forms:

Each worker must acknowledge receipt by entering the serial number of the supplementary coupon sheet issued to him/her in column 4 and signing his/her name in column 5.

Whatever justification there may be for using themselves as a singular common-sex pronoun, there can be no excuse for it when only one sex is referred to.

The female manipulative jobs are of a type to which by no means everyone can adapt themselves with ease.

There is no reason why herself should not have been written instead of themselves.

(12) What What, in the sense of that which, or those which, is an antecedent and relative combined. Because it may be either singular or plural in number, and either subjective or objective in case, it needs careful handling.

Fowler says that its difficulties of number can be solved by asking the question "what does it stand for?"

What is needed is more rooms.

Here Fowler would say that what means the thing that, and the singular verb is right: On the other hand, in the sentence "He no doubt acted with what are in his opinion excellent reasons", are is right because what is equivalent to reasons that. But this is perhaps over subtle, and there is no great harm in treating what as plural in such a construction whenever the complement is plural. It sounds more natural.

Because what may be subjective or objective, writers may find themselves making the same word do duty in both cases, a practice condemned by grammarians. For instance:

This was what came into his head and he said without thinking.

What is here being made to do duty both as the subject of came and as the object of said. If we want to be punctiliously grammatical we must write either:

This is what (subjective) came into his head and what (objective) he said without thinking.

or, preferably,

This is what came into his head, and he said it without thinking.

(13) Which. The New Yorker of the 4th December, 1948, quoted a question asked of the Philadelphia Bulletin by a correspondent:

My class would appreciate a discussion of the wrong use of which in sentences like "He wrecked the car which was due to his carelessness".

and the answer given by that newspaper:

The fault lies in using which to refer to the statement "He wrecked the car". When which follows a noun it refers to that noun as its antecedent. Therefore in the foregoing sentence it is stated that the car was due to his carelessness, which is nonsense.

What is? Carelessness? is the New Yorker's query.

Which shows how dangerous it is to dogmatise about the use of which with an antecedent consisting not of a single word but of a phrase. Punch has also provided an illustration of the same danger ("from a novel"):

Mrs. Brandon took the heavy piece of silk from the table, unfolded it, and displayed an altar cloth of her own exquisite embroidery....upon which everyone began to blow their nose....

The fact is that this is a common and convenient usage, but needs to be handled discreetly to avoid ambiguity or awkwardness.

The required statement is in course of preparation and will be forwarded as soon as official records are complete, which will be in about a week's time.

Here it is unnecessary; the sentence can be improved by omitting the words "which will be", and so getting rid of the relative altogether.

The long delay may make it inevitable for the authorities to consider placing the order elsewhere which can only be in the United States which is a step we should be anxious to avoid.

Here the writer has used which in this way twice in a single sentence, and shown how awkward its effect can be. He might have put a full-stop after elsewhere and continued, "That can only be in the United States and is a step we should be anxious to avoid".

(14) Which and that On the whole it makes for smoothness of writing not to use the relative which where that would do as well, and not to use either if a sentence makes sense and runs pleasantly without. But that is a very broad general statement, subject to many exceptions.

That cannot be used in a "commenting" clause; the relative must be which. With a "defining" clause either which or that is permissible, but that is to be preferred. When in a "defining" clause the relative is in the objective case, it can often be left out altogether. Thus we have the three variants:

This case ought to go to the Home Office, which deals with police establishments. (Commenting relative clause.)
The Department that deals with police establishments is the Home Office. (Defining relative clause.)
This is the case you said we ought to send to the Home Office. (Defining relative clause in which the relative pronoun, if it were expressed, would be in the objective case. )

That is an awkward word because it may be one of three parts of speech — a conjunction, a relative pronoun and a demonstrative pronoun. "I think that the paper that he wants is that one" illustrates the three in the order given. More than one modern writer has tried the experiment of spelling the word differently (that and thatt) according to its function; but not all readers are likely to find this expedient helpful, and any official who used it would be likely to get into trouble.

It is a sound rule that that should be dispensed with whenever this can be done without loss of clarity or dignity. For instance, the sentence just given might be written with only one that instead of three: "I think the paper he wants is that one". Some verbs seem to need a conjunctive that after them more than others do. Say and think can generally do without. The more formal words like state and assert cannot.

The conjunctive that often leads writers into error, especially in long sentences. This is not so much a matter of rule as of being careful.

It was agreed that, since suitable accommodation was now available in a convenient position, and that a move to larger offices was therefore feasible, Treasury sanction should be sought for acquiring them.

Here a superfluous that has slipped into the middle of the sentence. The first that was capable of doing all the work.

All removing residential subscribers are required to sign the special condition, that if called upon to share your line that you will do so.

That is another case of careless duplication.

As stated by the Minister of Fuel and Power on the 8th April, a standard ration will be available for use from 1st June, 1948, in every private car and motor cycle currently licensed and that an amount equivalent to the standard ration will be deducted....

The draftsman of this forgot how he had begun his sentence. He continued it as though he had begun "The Minister of Fuel and Power stated.. ." instead of "As stated by the Minister of Fuel and Power". The consequence was that he put in a that which defies both sense and grammar.

The Ministry of Food allow such demonstrations only if the materials used are provided by the staff and that no food is sold to the public.

In this sentence the use of that for if is less excusable because the writer had less time to forget how he had begun.

Their intention was probably to remove from the mind of the native that he was in any way bound to work and that the Government would protect him from bad employers.

This example shows the need of care in sentences in which that has to be repeated. If you do not remember what words introduced the first that, you may easily find yourself, as here, saying the opposite of what you mean. What this writer meant to say was that the intention was to remove the first idea from the native's mind and to put the second into it, not, as he has accidentally said, to remove both.

(15) Who and Whom. Who is the subjective case and whom the objective. The proper use of the two words should present no difficulty. But we are so unaccustomed to different case-formations in English that when we are confronted with them we are liable to lose our heads. In the matter of who and whom good writers have for centuries been perverse in refusing to do what the grammarians tell them. They will insist on writing sentences like "Who should I see there?" (Addison), "Ferdinand whom they suppose is drowned" (Shakespeare), "Whom say men that I am?" (translators of the Bible). Now any schoolboy can see that, by the rules, who in the first quotation, being the object of see, ought to be whom, and that whom in the second and third quotations, being in the one the subject of is, and in the other the complement of am, ought to be who. What then is the ordinary man to believe? There are some who would have us do away with whom altogether, as nothing but a mischief-maker. That might be a useful way out. But then, as was asked in the correspondence columns of the Spectator by one who signed himself "A. Woodowl" (31st December, 1948):

Regarding the suggested disuse of whom, may I ask by who a lead can be given? To who, to wit, of the "cultured" authorities can we appeal to boo whom and to boom who?

Whom will take some killing, too. Shakespeare and the translators of the Bible have their distinguished followers to-day, such as Sir Winston Churchill ("moves made by Republican malcontents to displace their leader by someone whom they imagined would be a more vigorous President"), Mr. E. M. Forster ("A creature whom we pretend is here already"), Lord David Cecil ("West, whom he knew would never be seduced away from him"), The Times ("He was not the man whom the police think may be able to help them") and even Mr. Somerset Maugham ("Bateman could not imagine whom it was that he passed off as his nephew"). This usage is moreover defended by Jespersen.

Sometimes, though more rarely, the opposite mistake is made:

A Chancellor who, grudging as was the acknowledgment he received for it, everyone knew to have saved his party.

But it has not yet become pedantic — at any rate in writing — to use who and whom in what grammarians would call the correct way, and the ordinary writer should so use them, ignoring these vagaries of the great. He should be specially careful about such sentences as:

The manager should select those officers who he desires should sign on his behalf.
The manager should select those officers whom he authorises to sign on his behalf.
There has been some argument about who should be authorised to sign on the manager's behalf.

(16) Whose. There is a grammarians' rule that whose must not be used of inanimate objects: we may say "authors whose books are famous", but we must not say "books whose authors are famous"; we must fall back on an ugly roundabout way of putting it, and say, "books the authors of which are famous". This rule, even more than that which forbids the split infinitive, is a cramping one, productive of ugly sentences and a temptation to misplaced commas.

There are now a large number of direct controls, the purpose of which is to allocate scarce resources of all kinds between the various applicants for their use.

Here the writer, having duly respected the prejudice against the inanimate whose, finds that controls the purpose is an awkward juxtaposition, with its momentary flicker of a suggestion that controls is a verb governing purpose. (37) So he separates them by a comma, although the relative clause is a "defining" one (see later), and the comma therefore misleading. In his effort to avoid one ambiguity he has created another.

Sir Alexander Cadogan added that legislatures were not unaccustomed to ratifying decisions the entry into force of which was contingent on circumstances beyond their control.

Here the writer has properly resisted the temptation to lessen the inevitable ugliness of the construction by putting a comma after decisions. How much more smoothly each sentence would run if the writer had felt at liberty to say controls whose purpose and decisions whose entry.

The rule is so cramping and so pointless that even the grammarians are in revolt against it. Onions regards it as permissible to use whose in such circumstances in order to avoid the "somewhat awkward collocation of of which with the definite article". Fowler said:

Let us in the name of common sense prohibit the prohibition of whose inanimate; good writing is surely difficult enough without the forbidding of things that have historical grammar and present intelligibility and obvious convenience on their side, and lack only — starch.

There are welcome signs that Fowler's advice is now being followed in official publications:

The hospital whose characteristics and associations link it with a particular religious denomination.
That revolution the full force of whose effects we are beginning to feel.
There has been built up a single centrally organised blood-transfusion service whose object is...
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