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Pronoun Agreement

Pronoun Agreement

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson expands on pronouns and how to use them correctly, including common pronoun choice errors.

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Welcome to English Composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? Today we'll be looking at pronouns and pronoun agreement with lots of examples of how they do and do not agree with their antecedents, as well as some examples of a different problem, pronoun reference errors. First let's make sure we all know what pronouns and antecedents are. A pronoun is a word that stands in for a noun or a noun phrase in a sentence. And an antecedent is the noun or noun phrase that a pronoun stands in for or represents.

In order for a sentence to be grammatically correct, the pronoun must match its antecedent in both number and gender. For example, in the sentence, "My students forgot their books at home," we have the plural possessive pronoun "their" to match "students," its plural antecedent. And then in the second sentence, "Mary decided to give the old man her seat." we have a feminine pronoun to match Mary's gender. Understanding how these two work together will give us more freedom as writers to make use of pronouns, arguably the most versatile of the parts of speech.

And now that we're armed with a basic understanding of how pronouns and antecedents relate to each other, let's take a look at some example sentences in which they don't. Take a look at this sentence and see if you can tell what's wrong with the pronoun choice. "If an employee drives to work, they should park in the back lot." Here the pronoun "they" is plural, which doesn't match the singular object of "an employee." Changing it to "he or she" will fix that, assuming that are both male and female employees being referenced.

In the sentence, "She played with the toys until it broke" should seem obviously wrong. Since "toys" is plural, the correct pronoun to use is "they." This one might seem a little trickier, "I just hope when the cop gets here, he is understanding." So what's wrong here? The subject and the pronoun are both singular, right? But unless we already know the cop that's on his way is male, we shouldn't use "he" as the pronoun. "He or she" is more politically correct, and in this case grammatically correct, too.

And the sentence, "Each gentleman should find their seat, please," we have another plural pronoun mismatch for the singular antecedent. And for our last example of pronoun disagreement, neither of the girls thought to call their mother." This one should be using the pronoun "her," since "neither of the girls" is singular. Think of it as not either, not one.

Besides not agreeing with their antecedents, there's another way that pronouns can get writers into trouble, via what composition experts call "pronoun reference errors." These occur when the antecedent isn't referenced by the pronoun, or when it's unclear which antecedent the pronoun is referencing.

For example, in the sentence. "Jack told Joe he was luckiest man on earth," we can't be sure who was the luckiest man. Does the pronoun "he" refer to Jack or to Joe? Without more context, readers can't tell. And so the writer would have to be more clear by stating something like, "Jack told Joe, 'You know, I'm the luckiest man on earth." It depends what the writer is trying to say.

The same could be said for this one. "My car hit the garage door, but it wasn't damaged." We don't know what it is, the car or the garage door. Both, perhaps? Again, the writer should take a little more time to be more clear. And in this sentence, "I don't expose my kids to violence and television because it's bad for them," we can probably assume that the speaker means both violence and television, or maybe violence on television, but as it's written, we can't be sure. "They" is probably the best choice for a pronoun given what we can assume about the context, though.

What about the sentence? "She warned her not to go, but Jane and Jill never did listen to each other." Here again we can't be sure who the "she" is that did the warning, and from the way this sentence is written, it'd really be a toss-up between Jane and Jill from the reader's perspective. And again, taking a little more time with writing would prevent it.

And finally, look at this one. "It says in my textbook that the tundra is a kind of climate zone." In this sentence, the pronoun "it" doesn't have a stated antecedent, and even though most people would have no trouble understanding the sentence's meaning, it would be much clearer in this case if the writer just avoided using a pronoun at all.

So what did we learn today? We learned about pronouns, how they do and don't sync up with antecedents, and how to recognize and avoid pronoun reference errors. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know

The noun or noun phrase that a pronoun stands in for or represents.


a word that stands in for a noun or noun phrase in a sentence.