ACT English and SAT Writing Tips: Beware of THEM (and THEY)!

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Implied pronouns--close up of conference meeting microphones and businessmanthose that do not have an antecedent in the sentence nor in a preceding sentence--are difficult to spot in writing because they are so prevalent in our speech. Do you know how to spot errors with "they" and "them"? If not, read on, because you are sure to encounter such errors on your ACT or SAT.All of the following sentences have implied pronoun errors:

They said on the news that pilot error caused the air show collision.      [Incorrect]

I've been to the Smiths' house, so I should probably invite them to my party.      [Incorrect]

Even though they said my grades were too low, I applied to Harvard anyway.       [Incorrect]

We went to the hospital, but they said to just take two aspirin and call them in the morning.      [Incorrect]

Do you see the problems in these sentences? Both the subject pronoun they and the object pronoun them are alarm bells on the ACT and SAT, so any instance in which these two words are underlined should make you pause and take a closer look.

Check out that first sentence once again:

They said on the news that pilot error caused the air show collision.      [Incorrect]

Who are they ? We can infer that the writer meant a news anchor or a reporter made this statement. Because our speech is informal, we make similar statements every day. But because we are preparing for a test of standard written English, we must provide an antecedent for every pronoun!

A reporter said on the news that pilot error caused the air show collision.      [Correct]

Note that on both the ACT and the SAT, the antecedent can appear in a previous sentence:

Two journalists reported from the air show. They said that pilot error caused the collision.      [Correct]

The pronouns they and them are only incorrect if there is no antecedent in the sentence or in preceding sentences.

Let's look at how them can also be an implied pronoun:

    I've been to the Smiths' house, so I should probably invite them to my party.      [Incorrect]

In this sentence, the possessive proper noun (Smiths' ) isn't a noun at all--it's an adjective describing house. Thus, the antecedent for them  is house, which neither agrees in number nor makes sense.

I've been to the Smiths' house, so I should probably invite the Smiths to my party.      [Correct]

I've been to the their house, so I should probably invite the Smiths to my party.      [Correct]

Again, remember that the antecedent can occur in a previous sentence, so you'll need to read a few lines above the underlined word before jumping to the conclusion that them  is an implied pronoun:

The Smiths are wonderful neighbors. They are friendly, caring, and always willing to lend me a cup of sugar. I've been to the Smiths' house, so I should probably invite them to my party.      [Correct]

This paragraph is a little awkward and the pronoun their  would sound better in place of the Smiths'  in the third sentence, but it's grammatically correct.

The pronouns they and them are not the only ones to watch for implied pronoun errors, but they are the most common so you'd be wise to scrutinize their usage when they are underlined on the ACT and SAT.

Need more tips? Check out our ACT courses.

 

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