The main function of pronouns is to keep us from repeating nouns. They’re supposed to be helpful, yet they end up causing so many problems.

The main function of pronouns is to keep us from repeating nouns. They’re supposed to be helpful, yet they end up causing so many problems.

One of those problems is the one I’ve been writing about: words that sound the same. In the world of pronouns, there are four main gangs of such troublemakers: “they’re and their (and there),” “it’s and its,” “you’re and your” and “who’s and whose.”

Notice that each group presents the same basic challenge: distinguishing between contractions and possessive pronouns. At the core of such confusion is the understanding that for nouns, the presence of an apostrophe often indicates the possessive case — a teacher’s desk, the planet’s atmosphere, Mom’s recipes, Jupiter’s moons.

But pronouns have their own possessive forms, and no apostrophes need apply.

That’s really all you have to understand. In the world of pronouns, apostrophes mean contractions, not possessives. So here we go.

“They’re, their, there”: “They’re” is a contraction of “they are”: “For vacation this summer, they’re sailing to the Bahamas.” You can substitute “they are” for “they’re.”

“And they’ll be using their own sailboat.” This time, we need the possessive “their.” You can’t substitute “they are”: “And they’ll be using they are own sailboat.” No clear sailing there.

And I used the other homonym “there” there, which in this case is an adverb meaning “somewhere other than here.”

But it also can play the role of a pronoun “in impersonal constructions in which the real subject follows the verb,” as Webster’s puts it. For example, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

“It’s and its”: We move from three homonyms to just two, but these two cause much more mischief.

But again, the test for the correct word is simple: If you can substitute “it is” (or “it has”), you need the contraction “it’s.” If not, the possessive pronoun “its” is what you want. It’s (it is) really that simple.

I think most people know this. They just aren’t willing to slow down long enough to conduct the test. It’s just one of those things.

“You’re and your”: Once again, if you can substitute “you are,” you want “you’re”: “You’re (“you are”) certainly welcome to your (not “you are”) own opinion.”

“Who’s and whose”: Are you saying “who is” (or “who has”)? Then use “who’s.” If not, make it “whose.”

Here’s an illustration, with apologies to Robert Frost:

“Whose woods are these? I wish I knew.”
“They’re Woods’ woods.”
“But who’s Woods?”
“Why, Tiger Woods, that’s who.”

This is the simplest of the “who” challenges. Just wait until we get to “who/that” and “who/whom” — and you won’t have to wait long.

Punctuation Station

There are many style conventions for commas, but most of them share a common aim: clarity. Consider how a comma changes the meaning in the following examples:

“The senator declined to comment, on the advice of his attorney.”

The attorney told the senator not to say anything.

“The senator declined to comment on the advice of his attorney.”

The senator would not talk about what his attorney said.

Small punctuation mark, big difference.

Contact Barry Wood at bwood@rrstar.com or read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/woodonwords/.