A pronoun is a word that stands in for a noun or noun phrase, and an antecedent is the word that a pronoun refers to and stands in for.
These elements, then, need to both agree with each other. This is described as pronoun-antecedent agreement, which is agreement in number and other features of a pronoun and its antecedent.
To create clear sentences, pronouns need clear, unambiguous antecedents. The one exception to this rule is when you use indefinite pronouns, which you’ll learn about later in this tutorial. When you’re not using indefinite pronouns, you can end up with pronoun reference errors if the antecedent isn’t clearly referenced by the pronoun, or if it’s not clear which antecedent the pronoun is referencing.
Pronouns should always agree with their antecedent in number and gender. Personal pronouns, for instance, are different based on the gender of the person being described, and they are always either plural or singular.
Thus, if the pronoun is singular, so too must be the antecedent that it’s referencing. Likewise, if an antecedent is plural, then the pronoun that will refer to it needs to also be plural.
Look at the following sentences.
Notice here that the pronoun “we” is plural; likewise, “our seats” is plural.
Here, “my dad” is singular and specifically male. Thus, “his” replaces “my dad” with the singular male version of those words.
If you find pronoun-antecedent agreement errors, you’ll definitely want to fix them to make sure that your readers understand your intended meaning. That’s one of the things you’ll often do in the editing stage of the writing process.
Sometimes you’ll have pronouns that correctly don’t refer to any specific antecedent. These pronouns replace nouns without being specific about which nouns they are standing in for. This is one way of referring broadly.
“Everyone” is the indefinite pronoun because it refers broadly to a nonspecific group of people.
Even though indefinite pronouns are a special kind of pronoun, they still have to follow the rest of the rules:
“Something” is the indefinite pronoun, and it is singular. Thus, the verb “make” is also given in the singular form.
There are times, however, when these indefinite pronouns will be mistaken as plural, even though they’re actually singular. Therefore, be particularly careful with the singular indefinites, such as anyone, someone, nobody, everybody, anything, and something.
Just think about those roots—one, body, thing. Those are all singular. That helps you remember that those indefinite pronouns are also singular. If, in contrast, you need to use a plural indefinite, try something such as few, several, or both.
To identify and correct errors in pronoun and antecedent relationships, it can be helpful to look at them in the context of a piece of writing.
What kinds of pronouns and pronoun errors do you see here? Start by highlighting all of the pronouns you see.
Here, you can see a pronoun doing its job correctly:
“They” is the plural personal pronoun that isn’t gender specific. It’s referring to “teachers,” which is also plural and non-gendered.
And here, you have an indefinite pronoun that refers to a hypothetical student:
See how “has” is singular to match? If the pronoun itself were plural, you’d need to write “have.”
Here, however, there is an agreement error:
When you’re referring to anyone but aren’t specifying gender, you need to use “he or she,” not “they,” because “they” is plural. You would need to correct both the pronoun and the verb to agree, as shown below.
Note, below, the error here is that “everything” is singular:
The verb should be “is” to agree with the singular pronoun, in accordance with subject-verb agreement.
Here’s one last mistake:
Robots is plural, so “it” should be “they.”
Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Martina Shabram.
The word that a pronoun refers to and stands in for.
A word that stands in for a noun or noun phrase.
Agreement in number and other features of a pronoun and its antecedent.