In went to the store to buy supplies

In this lesson, you’ll learn how to recognize and avoid an error in writing called a pronoun shift. A pronoun shift can happen when pronouns are mismatched or when the type of pronoun changes without reason.

Types of Pronouns

Before you can understand pronoun shift and how to correct it, you must be clear on the three different types of pronouns. Pronouns take the place of other nouns. The noun that a pronoun replaces is called its antecedent. Pronouns can be in the first, second, or third person.

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  • First person pronouns include: I, me, we, us, my, and our
  • Second person pronouns include: you, your, and yours
  • Third person pronouns include: he, she, it, they, their, his, and her

Pronouns need to be used consistently and match their antecedents. Pronoun shift is a problem that occurs in writing when pronouns change person or do not match their antecedents, as we’ll discuss next.

Mismatched Antecedents

As we just said, a pronoun shift can occur when a pronoun does not match its antecedent, either in a single sentence or in a longer piece of writing.

Pronouns need to match the number of their antecedent. In the singular third person (he, she, him, her), they also need to match the gender.Here’s a sentence where the pronoun does not match the gender of the antecedent:

  • My wife left his sunglasses by the pool.

The word ‘wife’ should match the pronoun ‘her’ so that the gender is consistent:

  • My wife left her sunglasses by the pool.

It’s also important to match the number of the pronoun: some pronouns are singular while others are plural. If the antecedent is plural, the pronoun must be plural.Here’s an example where a plural pronoun is mistakenly used with a singular antecedent:

  • Doug is on their way home from work.

This sentence could easily be corrected by changing the pronoun ‘their’ to a singular one:

  • Doug is on his way home from work.

It can be harder to catch a mismatched pronoun and antecedent when they’re not in the same sentence, as in:

  • Suzanne went to the store to buy supplies for her party.

    They bought balloons, cups, and plates.

Here, ‘they’ should be changed to ‘she’ so that it matches its antecedent, ‘Suzanne.’

Changing Persons

Another type of pronoun shift that’s harder to catch is a change in persons. When writing, it’s important to maintain the same person. If a paragraph starts in the third person, it should stay in the third person.

Check out the pronoun shift in the following paragraph:

  • Patrice and I were so excited to travel abroad for the first time. We asked the hotel if you could check in early so that you would have more time.

The paragraph starts out using the first person (‘I’ and ‘we’) but switches to the use of the second person (‘you’).Here’s another example where the pronouns change person:

  • If you have prepared for the exam by reading the assignments and studying nightly, then students will do their best.

Here, the writer shifts from the second person (‘you’) to the third person (‘their’).

Examples of Errors

Here are a few more examples of errors in pronoun shift, along with the corrected versions:

Example One

  • Matthew was watching television until his mom arrived to take them to practice.

When corrected, the sentence reads:

  • Matthew was watching television until his mom arrived to take him to practice.

Example Two

  • You can improve your health by eating their vegetables daily and getting enough exercise.

When corrected, the sentence reads:

  • You can improve your health by eating your vegetables daily and getting enough exercise.

Or:

  • People can improve their health by eating their vegetables daily and getting enough exercise.

Example Three

Here’s another example:

  • While we were on our way home it began to pour. They got soaked!

The correct version should read:

  • While we were on our way home it began to pour. We got soaked!

Lesson Summary

A pronoun shift occurs when pronouns are not used correctly or consistently in a piece of writing. It can happen when a pronoun does not match its antecedent, often in number or gender.

  • First person pronouns include: I, me, we, us, my, and our
  • Second person pronouns include: you, your, and yours
  • Third person pronouns include: he, she, it, they, their, his, and her

A pronoun shift can also occur with a change in person. Be sure to match your pronoun to its antecedent and stick to the first, second, or third person throughout your writing!

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