Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement

Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement

Basic Rule: A pronoun stands in the place of another word, called its antecedent.
For example: Jared left his backpack in the chemistry lab.  In this sentence, Jared is the antecedent and his is the pronoun standing in the place of Jared’s.  Rule: a pronoun must agree in person (e.g., I, you, she) and in number (singular or plural) with its antecedent. In the example above, Jared and his are third person and singular, so they agree in person and number.

Also, since third-person singular pronouns show gender (he, she, it), such pronouns must also agree in gender with the antecedent.  For example: Melanie could never learn to jump curbs with his her skateboard.

One group of pronouns that often invite misuse are called Indefinite Pronouns. These are pronouns that refer to nonspecific persons or things. Following are some examples:

  • everyone
  • everybody
  • everything
  • anybody
  • anyone
  • someone
  • something
  • none
  • each
  • any

The most common pronoun error with such words as those above come in sentences such as the following:

Everyone is invited to come to the farewell, but they must bring their own lunch.

Many of us would not think the sentence sounded wrong; in fact, many of us might say sentences much like that. However, a little examination shows the sentence has an error that should be avoided in more formal writing or speech. The verb  is that is used with Everyone is singular; it shows that Everyone is a singular noun. The pronouns they and their are plural; therefore, they can not be used with the singular Indefinite Pronoun Everyone. We must say he or sheto refer to Everyone.

Everyone is invited to come to the farewell, but he or she must bring his or her own lunch.

In practice, since saying he or she and his or her sounds a bit awkward, we often change the antecedent to a plural, as follows:

All are invited to come to the farewell, but they must bring their own lunch.

A second common difficulty has to do with collective noun antecedents such as the following:

  • herd
  • band
  • family
  • team
  • committee
  • troop
  • class

Ordinarily, such words refer to a single unit; they usually take a singular verb and singular pronouns:

The band is playing tonight, and it is playing next Saturday as well.
The team has a winning record on it’s own court.

Occasionally, such collective nouns are used clearly to refer to the members as individuals; in such cases plural pronouns are used.

The band will meet tonight; they will be measured for their uniforms.
The coach is very worried about the team; they have had very little experience.

Other Problems:

Awkward:  The United States must be vigilant to keep terrorists from crossing their borders.
Revised:  The United States must be vigilant to keep terrorists from crossing its borders. (The United States refers to a single entity, so the pronoun must be singular.)

Awkward:  When you leave high school and attend college, they make you study four times as much.  (This sentence has two pronoun weaknesses.  First, a writer should avoid the use of second-person “you” to refer to people generally; it is better to use third-person “one” or “a person.”  Also, “they” has no antecedent, so it is confusing.)
Revised:  When one leaves high school and attends college, the homework increases by four times.

Awkward:  A college student has to work in study time as often as he possibly can.  (This sentence uses a masculine pronoun to refer to a gender-neutral antecedent, “college student.”  While this was the general practice in past generations, many modern writers seek to avoid such patterns, partly to avoid using sexist language.)
Revision 1: A college student has to work in study time as often as he or she possibly can.
Revision 2:  College students have to work in study time as often as they possibly can.

Can you improve on the following sentences?

1.  Jim and his cousin Todd lifted weights until he was tired.
2.  Jolene gave her mother a gift of her favorite perfume.
3.  They say that watching too many video games harms your eyesight.
4.  Everyone should bring their own blanket for the picnic.
5.  Every breed of horses has their own peculiarities, and a good trainer should be aware of them if he is going to be successful in his training.

Copyright (C) 2007 by Ed Reber. All rights reserved. This document may be distributed as long as it is done entirely with all attributions to organizations and authors. Commercial distribution is strictly prohibited. Portions of this document may be copyrighted by other organizations.