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Pronouns and Antecedents

Pronouns and Antecedents

Author: Martina Shabram

Recognize errors in pronoun-antecedent agreement.

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Hello, students. My name is Dr. Martina Shabram. And I will be your instructor for today's lesson. I'm genuinely excited to teach you these concepts. So let's get started.

What are we learning today? Well, this lesson covers some important grammatical issues that can arise with pronouns and antecedents. We'll review what an antecedent is, how pronouns and antecedents need to agree, and we'll practice finding and correcting errors and agreement.

So a pronoun is a word that stands in for a noun or noun phrase. And an antecedent is what we call the word that a pronoun refers to and stands in for. These elements, then, need to both agree with each other, which we describe as pronoun-antecedent agreement, which is agreement in number and other features of a pronoun and its antecedent.

Now in order to create clear sentences, pronouns need clear, non-unambiguous antecedents. The one exception to this rule is when we use indefinite pronouns, which we'll review a little later in this lesson. If we're not using indefinite pronouns, we'd 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.

So let's look at those relationships a little more closely. Pronouns should always agree with their antecedent in number and gender. Personal pronouns, for example, are different based on the gender of the person being described. And they are always either plural or singular. So if the pronoun is singular, so too must the antecedent that it's referencing be singular. Likewise, if an antecedent is plural, then the pronoun that will refer to it needs to also be plural.

Here are some examples. We went into the classroom and took our seats. Notice here that the pronoun we is plural. So our seats is likewise plural. My dad ate his cookies. Here, my dad is singular and specifically male. So his replaces my dad with the singular male version of those words.

If you find pronoun-antecedent errors, you'll definitely want to fix them to make sure that your readers understand your intended meaning. That's one of the things we often do in the editing stage of the writing process.

Now sometimes, as I've already previewed, we 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 to refer broadly, such as if I wanted to say, everyone is going to love my cookies. Everyone there is the indefinite pronoun because it reverts 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. They need to be singular or plural. They need to agree with the number of their verbs. And they need to match in number and gender any pronouns that end up referring to them.

For example, something about my cookies makes them delicious. Something is our indefinite. And it is singular. So the verb make-- that's also given in the singular form.

Now sometimes, these indefinite pronouns will be mistaken as plural, even though they're actually singular. So be particularly careful with the singular indefinites-- 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 like few, several, or both.

So in order to identify and correct errors in pronoun and antecedent relationships, I'm going to give you a very short essay. Take a moment to read through it by pausing and spot the pronoun errors that you can find. And then press play when you're ready.

So what kinds of pronouns and pronoun errors do we see here? Let's start by highlighting all of the pronouns we see. OK. Here we see a pronoun doing its job correctly. They is the plural personal pronoun that isn't gender specific. And it's referring to teachers, which is also plural and which isn't gendered.

And here, we have an indefinite pronoun that refers to a hypothetical student. See how this has is singular to match? If the pronoun itself were plural, we'd need to write have.

So now here, I do see an error. When we're referring to anyone but aren't specifying gender, we need to use he or she, not they because they is plural. So let's correct that and also correct the antecedents.

Any other errors? Well, here's another one-- they is. They is plural. So it needs the plural form of to be-- they are. Conversely, here the error is that everything is singular. And so the antecedent here should be is. And here's another one. Robots is plural. So it here should be they.

So what did we learn today? We covered the relationships between pronouns and their antecedents. We learned about how some particular kinds of pronouns work, how they relate to their antecedents, and how to spot and remedy errors in pronoun-antecedent reference.

Well, students, I hope you had as much fun as I did. Thank you.

Terms to Know

The word that a pronoun refers to and stands in for.


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

Pronoun/Antecedent Agreement

Agreement in number and other features of a pronoun and its antecedent.