The Writer’s Toolbox – Bits and Pieces

A Primer on Parts of Speech, Part I: Nouns & Pronouns

Got a grammar or usage question? A quick Google search will yield helpful results. Or rather, they would be helpful?if you could understand them.

And That’s the problem. It’s difficult to improve your writing when You’re unclear on the basics the Internet grammar gurus are presuming. You can hardly be expected to get excited about minutiae like the correct use of who or whom when your memory’s drawing a blank at objective and subjective cases. And what was a preposition again?

If You’re shaky on the basics of grammar and need a quick refresher (or a reference you can use as your online cheat sheet!), you’ll want to follow this series that will pop up in the Toolbox from time to time. I’ll try to jog your memory with clear definitions and descriptions of grammar basics and terms?in a way that will allow you to start using them with confidence yourself.

This week’s Toolbox provides a quick primer on nouns and pronouns and how to recognize them.

Nouns: the basics

A noun is conventionally described as a person, place, or thing. ?Thing? is very broad and includes intangible concepts or feelings (love, embarrassment) as well as tangible items (table, building).

Example A: Sarah went to the store and was shocked at the high prices. Here, the nouns are “Sarah” (a person), “store” (a place), and “prices” (a thing). Simple, right?

Nouns are often confused with the subject of the sentence?the thing or person who’s performing the action in a sentence?but while nouns are usually an important part of the subject, subjects aren’t limited to just the noun. Moreover, nouns occur elsewhere in sentences, too (for example, they might be the recipient of the action). That’s beyond the scope of this week’s primer, but the takeaway lesson here is this: a noun is a person, place, or thing, and it can appear anywhere in a sentence.

Example B: The exhausted student working on the computer is my sister, Sarah. The subject of the sentence is “The exhausted student working on the computer” (the so-called simple subject would be “student”), but there are four nouns in the sentence?”student”, “computer”, “sister”, and “Sarah”?each playing its own role.

Pronouns: the basics

Pronouns are stand-ins, or replacements, for nouns. Usually we think of pronouns as words like he, she, it, and they (and all their forms), but there are other, less obvious pronouns: who/whom, everyone, anyone, herself, each other, which, and those, for example. In fact, there are eight different types or classes of pronouns; while some have specific rules that can trip up even experienced writers, you probably use most of them every day with barely a thought.

The noun to which the pronoun refers (or which it replaces) is called the antecedent.

Example C: Sarah went to the store.

Example D: She went to the store.

“Sarah” in Example C is the noun antecedent to the pronoun “She” in Example D.

Though we’ll cover antecedents in more detail in the future, one rule you need to know now is that pronouns must match, or agree with, their antecedents. This means that if your antecedent is plural?more than one?the pronoun used to replace it must also be plural. Hence Examples E and F:

Example E: Sarah, Amir, and Daria went to the store.

Example F: They went to the store.

It also means that the pronoun needs to match the antecedent in nature. In Examples G and H, the pronoun changes so it reflects the nature of the antecedents:

Example G: Sarah, Amir, and I went to the store.

Example H: We went to the store.

That’s it?nouns, pronouns, and antecedents in a nutshell. In future installments of the Toolbox we’ll look at some common writing problems associated with noun and pronoun use (and the rules that even experienced editors need to double-check). But not to worry. Now that you’ve got the basics down, You’re well on your way to being able to tackle them.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor and a lover of great writing. Chat with her on Twitter about all things literary @turntopage2.