Today, we’re talking about pronouns on the new SAT. There is a lot to say about them so this is a longer post—stick with it!
What are pronouns?
Pronouns are some of the unsung heroes of sentences. Along with articles (a, an, the), pronouns are often ignored and under-appreciated. We tend to take them for granted, but sentences get ugly quickly without them. Take this short paragraph:
Emily opened her eyes and turned off Emily’s alarm clock. Then Emily got out of bed and dragged Emily into Emily’s bathroom to brush Emily’s teeth.
Okay, we’ll stop there for sanity’s sake. Without pronouns, those two sentences become a repetitive nightmare.
Pronouns allow us to talk about the same nouns over and over without sounding like a broken record. The noun that a pronoun replaces is called its antecedent.
Here’s a quick reminder of what pronouns are:
The singular pronouns are I, me, he, him, she, her, it, you, and one.
The plural pronouns are they, them, we, you, and us.
Notice that you is in both lists because it can refer to one person or several people.
Possessive pronouns are used when we want to show that the antecedent owns something. These are: my/mine, your/yours, his, her/hers, its, our/ours, and their/theirs.
Of course, just as they can improve your writing when used correctly, pronouns used incorrectly can confuse your reader. Pronouns themselves are easy to spot, and the SAT always makes specific types of pronoun errors, so once you know what you’re looking for, these questions become a lot easier.
Just like subject-verb agreement, pronoun agreement is about plurality. Singular antecedents need to be replaced by singular pronouns and plural antecedents by plural pronouns. Unfortunately, also like subject-verb agreement, pronouns are often separated from their antecedents, which complicates things a little.
Here’s an example:
Example 1: Tom asked for the papers to be mailed to him.
In this case, the pronoun “him” is as far away from its antecedent “Tom” as it could be, but it still agrees with Tom because it is singular. It wouldn’t make sense to have a plural pronoun here because “papers” is not meant to be the antecedent, even though it is much closer to the pronoun.
Other pronoun errors that you’ll encounter are pronoun reference problems. These can be sneaky because they often sound like they’re correct when you read them the first time.
Here’s an example:
Example 2: Anna told Clementine that the teacher wanted her to turn in her paper by the end of the day.
This sounds grammatically fine, right? We do have singular pronouns and singular antecedents, which is great, but you might have noticed that the logic of this sentence is unclear. Whose paper needs to be turned in, and by whom? Maybe Clementine or Anna needs to turn in her own paper, or maybe one of the girls is turning in the other’s paper, or one of them could even be turning in the teacher’s paper, since we don’t know if the teacher is male or female! This sentence needs to be edited to make the reader understand exactly who is doing what. The easiest way to do this is usually by replacing one or more of the pronouns with its antecedent. It may make the sentence a little more repetitive, but at least it will be clear.
Alright, we made it through round one with pronouns! Time for a tea break! Below, we’ll discuss the difference between subject pronouns and object pronouns and how you can tackle them on the test.
Subject vs. Object
A subject pronoun is simply one that can be used as a subject (main noun) in a sentence, and an object pronoun is used as an object. A subject is a noun that performs an action, whereas an object is a noun that is acted upon.
Example 1: Henry tossed the ball.
In the above example, Henry is the subject because he is doing the tossing, and the ball is the object because it is being tossed.
If a pronoun is replacing the subject of a sentence, make sure to use a subject pronoun. The subject pronouns are I, you, they, we, he, she, and it.
If a pronoun is replacing the object of a sentence or preposition, use an object pronoun. The object pronouns are me, you, them, us, him, her, and it.
Knowing whether to use a subject or object pronoun becomes difficult when more than one subject or object is used. This is especially true when deciding between I and me. Let’s look at a quick example:
Example 3a: Amanda and I are going to the restaurant. Jill said she would pay for Amanda and I.
I only belongs in one of these sentences. A great trick that can help you decide which pronoun to use is to eliminate all other nouns or pronouns except the one you are testing, then read the sentence again. If we eliminate “Amanda” from both sentences we end up with the following:
Example 3b: I [am] going to the restaurant. Jill said she would pay for I.
Now that “Amanda” is gone, we can see the first sentence uses I correctly as a subject, but the second uses it as an object for the verb “pay”. It should read “she would pay for me” instead. If you saw the second sentence on the SAT, you would pick an answer that changed the sentence to read “Jill said she would pay for Amanda and me.”
The new SAT Writing section is all about interpreting the questions within the context of the passage. This means that the above examples would be within paragraphs inside of passages, which will affect how you might choose to correct them. Therefore, it is vital that you read the paragraph around a possible pronoun error to determine if you actually need to edit anything. If an answer choice could be misinterpreted in any way, it is unlikely to be correct.
Who knew that pronouns could be so complicated? The good news is that because you use pronouns naturally every day, you are likely to have a good instinct for them, but, as with all SAT questions, always have a reason for picking the answer you choose.
And that’s a wrap on pronouns! If a question on the SAT includes a pronoun, always double check that it follows all the rules before moving on. It may be that all the sentence needs is a little pronoun tweak!
- Pronouns replace nouns to help avoid repetition.
- Pronouns must agree in plurality with their antecedents.
- Subject and object pronouns are different and must replace only subjects and objects, respectively.
- Removing extra subjects and objects from a sentence can make it much easier to spot errors.