Third-Person Pronouns

He/She/It

He, she, and it are the pronouns you will probably use most often.

He/She presents some difficulties in our age of gender awareness. Separating the alternatives with a slash is informal— it is better to write he or she. As with one, however, repeated instances of he/she and he or she can become awkward quickly. As we noted in the article on gendered pronouns, you can often avoid this problem by recasting a sentence in the plural, as in the following example:

Before a student registers for classes, he or she should check the degree requirements for his or her major.

Before students register for classes, they should check the degree requirements for their majors.

It will baffle your readers if you haven't clearly identified its antecedent (the noun that the pronoun refers to):

My Fabergé egg fell on the Ming vase, and it broke.

In this sentence, the reader can't be sure whether the egg or the vase broke. As a practice exercise, see how many ways you can rewrite the sentence to break the vase but keep the egg intact. Be creative and try for some sentence variety.

The possessive form of it does not take an apostophe:

The basketball team lost its first game of the season.

This is easy to remember if you recall that his and hers (the masculine and feminine possessives) are not written hi's or her's. In contrast, the contraction it's (short for it is or it has) does take an apostrophe, just like he's, she's, and all the other contractions.

They

Like it, the pronoun they causes problems if readers can't identify the antecedent:

The Marx Brothers often worked with the Three Stooges. They were known for their computer programming abilities.

Inaccuracies aside, this use of they is unclear. Which trio knew how to program? Or did both of them know? Combining sentences, or simply eliminating the pronoun, could solve this problem.

Sadly, they is not a widely accepted substitute for he/she. This usage is growing in casual writing, but is still liable to irritate readers brought up under stricter regimes. Unless you are willing to risk that irritation, I would not recommend using they as anything but the plural it was meant to be. As I noted earlier, however, you can rewrite a sentence so that the plural is appropriate. Doing so is one of the best workarounds for the he/she problem.

Try one on your own!

Try rewriting the following sentence so that you don't have to use he or she:

The typical college student would enjoy bungee jumping if he or she tried it.

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Personal Pronouns

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