Ante-Who?: Pronoun Usage in Technical Writing

Technological ConfusionDespite their small size, pronouns cause a world of trouble for writers of technical documents. First, if pronouns aren’t placed correctly, they can cause serious misunderstanding, and when documents are being revised often by multiple authors, these tiny words can get lost in the shuffle.

Second, the many different classes and sub-classes of pronouns each raise their own unique set of difficulties for the technical writer that aren’t addressed in a typical grammar handbook. So let’s talk about some of the problems raised by personal, relative, and demonstrative pronouns as well as by their case. (And as we go, I’ll try to break down those terms so they’re not quite so daunting.)

Personal pronouns are the ones that refer to us. They’re the most common ones that we use in conversation – I, you, and we.

As you probably remember from your grammar school days, pronouns have antecedents; that is, the noun that the pronoun replaces; except personal pronouns don’t. In the case of a personal pronoun, the antecedent is the physical person to which they refer. In conversation, that’s the actual people who are doing the talking.

I is the physical presence or voice. You is the auditor or conversant. In writing those bodies are lacking. For many years it was considered taboo to use personal pronouns in technical writing, because they lacked an antecedent and were therefore grammatically incorrect.

But scientific and technical writing has been trending toward a less formal voice, including a more personable relationship between the author and the reader. Many scientific journals are open to the use of personal pronouns in the Methods and Results section of the article. And in government writing, the Plain Writing Act of 2010 mandates the use of personal pronouns for all government writing except regulations.

If you’re writing on behalf of a team or an organization and you’re concerned that your audience might misunderstand what is meant by the words I or we or if you’re writing to multiple audiences and you’re afraid that the word you could be misconstrued, you might wish to define the terms in the introduction. You could say something like, we the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, or, you the concerned citizen, and thus clarify.

The Incredible Hulk

Only the Incredible Hulk uses the objective pronoun in the subject slot.

Astute readers are probably wondering what happened to me or us. Well those are personal pronouns too. But they’re in the objective case. That means they serve as the objects of sentences and not as the subjects of sentences.

Think about it for a second. Unless you’re the Incredible Hulk, you wouldn’t say, me wish to share this information with you, or us voice our concerns in the following statement. You would say, I wish to share this information with you, or we voice our concerns in the following statement.

That’s the difference between pronoun case. I-you-we are in the subjective case. Me-you-us are in the objective case. That also explains the difference between who and whom.

Who is having a rough day today? It’s Jimmy who is having a rough day today.

The word who is the subject of our question. And it is also the subject of what’s called a relative clause. Relative clauses start with another type of pronoun, relative pronouns. There are five relative pronouns – who, whom, whose, which, and that. Notice that these are types of pronoun and not cases of pronouns. Who is not a personal pronoun, but it’s still in the subjective case. Whom is a relative pronoun, and it’s in the objective case. (Subjective and objective case don’t apply to whose, which, and that.)

Let’s look at some other examples of whom.

The owners of the stock for whom we had invested took umbrage with our choices.

In this case our clause has a subject – we had invested. The word whom is acting as the object of the preposition for, and the only reason it’s anywhere near the subject position is to avoid ending our clause with a preposition. Otherwise the sentence would read like so:

The owners of the stock we had invested for took umbrage with our choices.

That sounds a little bit awkward and it could be considered unclear. So we move the preposition and give it a grammatical rather than an implied object. But just because we put the word whom near the subject doesn’t make it a subject. It’s still functioning as an object and it should be in the objective case.

Finally, one last example:

The homeless man was not whom he was anticipating.

Once again, notice the presence of a subject and verb pairing – he was anticipating. You could rearrange the sentence to say he was not anticipating the homeless man, making it clear that the word whom is substituting for the object of the sentence. If you can find a subject in the vicinity, chances are the word whom is the correct choice.

One last note about relative pronouns. Be careful not to confuse the words which or that when you mean to say who. Very often I see people or groups of people referred to with the words which or that, for example.

The scientists that made the discovery were never given proper credit.

It’s a careful editor who will know to replace that word with the word who.

Finally, demonstrative pronouns serve the function of pointing towards a word or phrase. Like personal pronouns, they have a gestural significance, and for that reason they should be used carefully in a written document where the gesture is not always as apparent as it can be in spoken conversation. The words this, that, these, and those if not crystal clear should be followed by the word or phrase to which you intend to refer, such as in the following pair of sentences:

Another method is to weave a scientific story around someone else. This is the continuing appeal of the articles called “Annals of Medicine” that Berton Roueché has long been writing in The New Yorker.

From William Zinsser On Writing Well, p 139

Someone editing this passage for clarity may wish to substitute this method rather than this.

Did you find these examples helpful? Let me know by leaving a comment. Do you have others to add? Share! And be sure to join me and @ShakirahDawud for Thursday’s edition of #WrMatters on Twitter – Thursday, June 28th at 4 pm ET. We’ll be fielding questions for writers who know that communication is key!


  1. Dave Sarro says

    I’ll make my comment mercifully brief: Excellent article!

  2. Arpita Bhawal says

    Wow! That was super confusing but in a sense, quite helpful. I need to go back to my Grammar School. 🙂

    • Don’t we all? I keep a grammar handbook by my side when I write and teach this type of material. And remember, it’s not the terms that matter so much as the tips. Take them one at a time and pretty soon you’ll find yourself being the go-to grammar person in your own office!

  3. Alaina Yockey says

    Thanks for writing and sharing your article! This topic is challenging for me.

  4. Good efforts. We rarely inclined to share the acquired knowledge. The write up is lucid and straightforward without ambiguity.

    Please go ahead to share your mind on other grammar nuances.

    Warm regards.

    A.Jyothi mahalingam

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.