The comedic trope, “What’s the deal with . . .?” (often credited to Jerry Seinfeld but, actually, rarely used by him in legitimate comedy*) points out the irony in the obvious to which we often pay little attention. For example, in Seinfeld (season 9, episode 1), Jerry uses this “canned” formula to undermine his own act as a way to prevent comedic competitor Kenny Bania from copying his material:

Jerry: What’s the deal with lampshades? I mean, if it’s a lamp, why do you want shade?

Sure, it’s a “bit,” but like most comedy, it’s the truth that becomes amusing once we actually start to think about it.

So, what is the deal with pronouns?

I mean if they’re just substitutes for nouns or noun phrases, why does it matter which ones we use? Well, just like we do want a shade on a lamp to control the amount and direction of the light, it does matter which pronouns we use. In business writing, especially, it matters because we want to be

  1. Good writers.
  2. Respectful of others.
Shading Some Light

We use a pronoun as a substitute for a noun (which then becomes that pronoun’s antecedent) because pronouns allow us to be more concise and less repetitive.

As an example, let’s look at the following sentence, the concept of which is similar to something you might IM a colleague at work:

On your way to the meeting, please do the following for Larry David: Stop by Larry’s office to pick up Larry’s script, which Larry left on Larry’s credenza.

That’s a lot of Larrys!

Larry DavidLarry DavidLarry DavidLarry DavidLarry David

Now look at the revised sentence, which uses pronouns as substitutes for “Larry” (the noun that becomes the antecedent) and for “Larry’s” (the possessive form of that noun):

On your way to the meeting, please do the following for Larry David: Stop by his office to pick up his script, which he left on his credenza.

With pronouns, that sentence is both shorter AND easier to understand. You probably substitute pronouns naturally when speaking, but in your business writing, you may need to think more carefully about the pronouns you use. Why? Because pronouns matter to people.

Nerd Kid

Nerd alert: There are five kinds of pronouns: subject, object, reflexive, possessive, and possessive adjective. And each of those kinds of pronouns has a specific form for person (first, second, third); gender (female or male); and number (singular or plural).

Here’s how those terms shake out, by pronoun type, in our sample sentence–note the color coding:

On your way to the meeting, please do the following for Larry David: Stop by his office to pick up his script, which he left on his credenza.

(Noun/Antecedent Possessive Adjective Pronouns [3] Subject Pronoun)

What You Really Need to Know
  1. That the stalwart academic rule about pronouns is that a pronoun should agree with its antecedent in person, gender, and number, and it must be in the correct case, i.e., depending on whether it is used as a subject or an object, shows possession, or is reflexive.
  1. That language (vocabulary and grammar) changes to accommodate our evolution as people in progressive societies. The modern and practical response that accommodates some ambiguity allows, for example, for using a plural pronoun to refer to a singular antecedent when that antecedent’s (noun’s/person’s) gender is unknown—or even when it is known.

We’re taking the modern and practical approach, here; but, first, a brief history lesson.

The Brief History Lesson

Language changes to accommodate the evolution of humanity, acquiring vocabulary words related to technology, for example, and shifting the meaning of words based on how they are used. Take “Internet,” for example—it was first used in 1984 as a way to express the concept of “between” and “networks.” And note that the word “gay,” which for most of the 19th and 20th centuries meant “happy” or “carefree,” has evolved to mean homosexual.

And, when was the last time you said, “Wherefore art thou?” Probably the last time you wore an outfit like this one! ↓Photo of William Shakespeare

Back to People Pronouns

We’re focusing on pronouns referring to people, only, so let’s discuss the relevant humanitarian and language conventions for business writing. (Yes, I promise to write about other kinds of pronouns later. I won’t let you down.)

Consider the following:

  1. Many people identify as female or male; if you know the person you are writing about identifies as female or male, use the pronoun “she” or “he” to refer to her or him. Or “her” or “his” if it’s a possessive adjective:

Jerry lives in New York; he lives there for the duration of his series.

(Noun/Antecedent Subject Pronoun Possessive Adjective Pronoun)

  1. If you are writing about more than one person (or using a collective plural such as “people,”) use a plural pronoun to refer to the plural antecedent:

Elaine and George like the big salad for lunch, but they usually argue about which one of them has paid for their big salad.

(Nouns/Antecedents Subject Pronoun Object Pronoun Possessive Adjective Pronoun)

  1. If you are writing about one person, but you don’t know if that person is female or male, or you know the person to be non-binary or gender fluid, go ahead and use the plural pronoun to refer to the antecedent even though it is singular:

Taylor lives in Connecticut–they moved all of their possessives last June.

(Noun/Antecedent Subject Pronoun Possessive Adjective Pronoun)

If you’ve seen the hit Showtime program Billions, you know that the character Taylor is non binary: They introduce themself (yes, that’s a real pronoun now according to collinsdictionary.com and many other credible sources) as follows: “I’m Taylor: my pronouns are ‘they,’ ‘theirs,’ and ‘them.’” Click here if you’d like to read more about that.

If this isn’t comfortable for you, remember the brief history lesson, and think about getting used to it—it’s already quite acceptable in business and some academic writing. I’ve seen professional email wherein the sender stated their (see what I did) preferred pronouns in their email signature. And in the September 7, 2019 episode of the hit NPR show Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!, the first caller introduced himself with his name, followed by “. . .he, him, his. . . ” (his preferred pronouns).

Tips for Using Pronouns in Business Writing
  1. Watch email signatures, a common spot where people can, and will, state their preferred pronouns—use those pronouns for that person.
  2. Never assume, by someone’s name, that you know a person’s gender—find out or use a plural pronoun until you do.
  3. Use plural antecedents and pronouns whenever possible, in general, to avoid complicating your life with having to make decisions about gender and pronouns in your business writing.
  4. If you’re not sure about gender, or if you don’t know anything about the driver who left a car’s lights on in the parking lot (for example), write, “The driver of a blue Honda Civic, with Illinois plates LUV2DRV, left their lights on.” Your third grade English teacher may roll over in their grave (see, I did it again), but there is no need to be overly formal in this situation where you don’t know the driver’s gender and where it really isn’t important.
  5. In formal writing, write so your pronouns and antecedents will agree in person, number, and gender whenever possible; or rewrite to eliminate the need for pronouns.
Focus Your Pronoun Light

Call yourself whatever you want to be called, and express your preferences for your pronouns if you wish. And, further, I encourage the rest of us to call you what you want to be called. Name it. We’ll use your name, but we may need to substitute a pronoun at some point, so if you have preferences, express them.

And write well, but keep the freedom to be you and me. (And here’s a link in case you are too young to have understood that reference or otherwise missed the 70s for any reason): Free to Be You and Me

Confidence and Power in Writing

Power On!

P.S. If you want an easy-to-read modern book on grammar, I highly recommend Grant Barrett’s Perfect English Grammar. The part about pronouns is in chapter 10!

And, if you can make time, read this great article on subject/verb agreement when using “they” to refer to a singular antecedent. Thanks, Lynna!

And, if you’re interested in reflexive pronouns, visit our Resources page to see the Power Source video on that troublesome pronoun “myself.”


* https://mentalfloss.com/article/59044/whats-deal-whats-deal-did-seinfeld-actually-say-it

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