Pronoun Antecedent Agreement

Basic Rules for Pronoun Antecedent Agreement

A PRONOUNOpens in new window must agree with its ANTECEDENTOpens in new window in numberOpens in new window (singular or plural), person (first, second, or third) and genderOpens in new window (masculine, feminine, or neuter).

Agreement with Number

A pronoun must agree with its antecedent in number.

Antecedent means that which comes before; it represents the word for which a pronoun stands or to which it refers back (See ANTECEDENTOpens in new window).

Examples

In the following sentences, the antecedents (words in bold) are in agreement with its individual pronouns; the pronouns are underlined:
  • The man said that his lost child had been found by the police.
  • She observed the changes in her body after taking treatment.
  • We had to come in our old sedan.
  • The medical team gave their premium service.
  • My dog injured its tail. (or his or her as appropriate)
  • The HR department submitted its report.

The concept of pronoun and antecedent agreement is fairly simple, the only time it gets tricky is when we use the indefinite pronouns.

At this point, it is imperative to shed a little light on INDEFINITE PRONOUNSOpens in new window.

Some INDEFINITE PRONOUNSOpens in new window are singular in meaning, some are plural, and others can be used both ways. It is important to be able to distinguish the difference.

Here are rules and principles guiding the proper use of indefinite pronouns so that the pronoun and its antecedent may agree:

A.     Singular Indefinite Pronouns

The singular indefinite pronouns take a singular antecedent. They refer to a single unspecified person or thing or to one collective group.

The following is a list of singular indefinite pronouns.

Indefinite Pronouns
anotheroneeither
someone or (some one)anybodymuch
somebodynothingeverything
anyone or (any one)eachevery
somethingneither

It’s easy to remember most of these because most of them end in either, one or body, and we know that one and body are singular. Therefore, you must use a singular pronoun when these indefinite pronouns are used as the antecedent.

For Example:

The tricky thing about sentence 1) is: most people would assume the word their, is the appropriate pronoun to use in place of his or her.

That will be incorrect because everybody is a singular pronoun which is not gender specific.

Most people, it is observed, prefer to use the male pronoun his when referring to all of us. This is partially acceptable grammar.

Nowadays, however, we generally say his or her so that we have a singular pronoun and are not being gender–biased.

Note: Exceptions to this rule!  

If the context of the sentence requires a plural pronoun, it is ideal we make the readers cognizant that our intended meaning is plural and that we are using the plural correctly. Consider the sentences in 3) and 4).

Because the indefinite pronouns Opens in new window listed above are singular, you can run into gender problems when trying to use a singular pronoun.

In similar situations, you may be better off reword the sentence. Observe the constructions in 5) through 7).

B.     Plural Indefinite Pronouns

The plural indefinite pronouns which include: several, few, both, many, and others are always plural in context, and would always require plural pronouns.

Examples include:

C.     Some indefinite pronouns may be singular or plural

Some indefinite pronouns such as all, most, any, none, more, and some may need either a singular pronoun or a plural pronoun, depending on the noun they refer to.

Compare the following:

D.     Two nouns or Pronouns Joined by And

When faced with an antecedentOpens in new window that consists of two nouns or pronouns joined by the word and, the principle is to use a plural pronoun, as shown in 12), 13) and 14).

Examples include:

However, when two nouns joined by and refer to a single idea, person, or thing, the pronoun is singular, as is the case in 15).

E.     Nouns Joined by Or or Nor

When faced with two nouns that are both plural, the principle is to use a plural pronoun, as shown in Examples 16) and 17).

Examples include:

If you come across two nouns that are both singular, use a singular pronoun, as illustrated in 18), 19) and 20).

Note that this can sometimes result to gender issues. [Gender is treated a little further below.]

When the antecedent consists of one noun that is singular and another one that is plural, make the pronoun agree with the nearest noun.

The sentence will usually be less awkward if you put the plural noun second. Notice in Examples 21) and 22) that the verb also changes to agree with the nearest noun:

F.     A Compound Noun After Each or Every

When the antecedent consists of two or more nouns that follow each or every, the principle is to use a singular pronoun, as is the case in 23) and 24).

Examples include:

G.     Collective Nouns

Most collective nounsOpens in new window including committee, family, group, and team have singular form, but may take singular or plural pronouns, as required by the construction of the sentence Opens in new window.

However, when the group acts as a unit, use a singular pronoun, as Example 24) and 25) illustrate.

Examples include:

When referring to members of the group who act separately, use a plural pronoun, as is the case in 26).

Agreement with Gender

Agreement in GenderOpens in new window is fairly straightforward.

However, there are some tricky instances where problem persists. Hence the need to take advantage of the following insights.

A.     When a particular gender is clearly appropriate

When one gender is clearly appropriate, use the corresponding pronoun. A singular personal pronounOpens in new window may be masculine (he, him, his), feminine (she, her, hers), or neuter (it, its).

The plural personal pronouns they, them, their, and theirs have no specific gender, as sentences 1), 2) and 3) illustrate.

B.     Alternatives for tackling gender problems

Most nouns and pronouns come with gender problems. It is an acceptable practice, to use he, him, or his as a generic pronoun to refer to both males and females.

However, if the noun referred to an occupation or role predominantly associated with women, most writers often use she, her, or hers as alternative, as is the case in construction 3) and 4).

Note that this kind of writing is seldom acceptable anymore.

Use of the masculine pronouns excludes women. Use of the feminine pronouns in roles predominantly associated with women not only excludes men but also serves to reinforce stereotypes about women.

Now, we take a look at some of the available options for tackling gender issues.

Use he or she, his or her, or him or her instead:

For Example:
  • Every firefighter should be able to don his or her SCBA in under a minute.

This is an acceptable alternative provided you do not have to use it too often. However, if you are confronted with several gender issues in your write-up, you will be better off using one of the other techniques.

Note that some grammarians would rather use he or she over he/she.

Avoid the pronoun by replacing it with an article (a, an, or the):

For Example:
  • Every firefighter should be able to don an SCBA in under a minute.

Not every situation lends itself to this option, however. For example, you could not say “Each firefighter washed the hands after coming in contact with the victim’s blood”.

At times, you may need to reword the sentence so that everything is plural:

For Example:
  • All firefighters should be able to don their SCBAs in under a minute.

This is often the best solution.

You may even rewrite the sentence entirely:

For Example:
  • Being able to don an SCBA in under a minute is something we expect of all of our firefighters.

But do not become over reliant on this option. It can lead to wordy sentences or awkward sentences that mean something different than you intended.

Agreement in Person

Pronouns invariably come in:
  • the first person (singular I, plural we);
  • second person (you, both singular and plural); and
  • third person (singular he, she, it, one; plural they).

Hence, you must ensure to match the appropriate pronoun to its antecedent, and remain consistent to avoid shifting unnecessarily from a particular person to another.

A.     Make Pronouns and Antecedents Agree in Person

A Pronoun and its Antecedent must agree in person (first, second, or third).

For Example:
  • I found my missing pen.
  • You brought your piano to school.
  • During the math class Andy was the first to submit his class work.
  • We came with our tools.

B.     Avoid Shifts in Person

Be careful not to inadvertently shift from one person to another. Consider the following constructions.

Type One:
  • If anyone witnessed the accident, you should call the police and tell them what you saw. (incorrect: shifting from third person to second person)
  • If you witnessed the accident, you should call the police and tell them what you saw. (Revised: all second person)
  • Anyone who witnessed the accident should call the police and tell them what happened. (Revised: personal pronouns removed)
Type Two:
  • If someone doesn’t know how to do CPR, they should sign up for the class. (Incorrect: Shifting from third person singular to third person plural)
  • If people don’t know how to do CPR, they should sign up for the class (Revised: all third person plural)
  • People who don’t know how to do CPR should sign up for the class. (Revised: personal pronouns removed)