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Error 5: Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement Errors (p/a)

A pronoun takes the place of a noun. An antecedent is the word, phrase, or clause to which a pronoun refers.

In the following example, the antecedent is in bold and the pronoun is italicized.

  • The teacher forgot her book.

Here her is the pronoun, and teacher is the antecedent.


Checking for Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement

Pronouns and antecedents agree in person—first (I, we), second (you), or third (he, she, it, they.) They also agree in gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter) and number (singular or plural). Errors in person and gender are rare, so they won’t be discussed here. Most pronoun-antecedent agreement errors have to do with number.

If the antecedent is singular, the pronoun should be singular. If the antecedent is plural, the pronoun should be plural.

  • Pronoun-antecedent agreement error example: The dogs tugged on its leash.
  • Correct: The dogs tugged on their leashes.

Only in the second sentence does the pronoun (their) agree with the antecedent (dogs). (Both are plural.)

Except for careless mistakes or typos, students rarely make the kind of error like the one described above. In the next section, we’ll look at the pronoun-antecedent agreement situations that cause students problems.

The Most Problematic Pronoun-Antecedent Situation

Most agreement problems arise with the singular indefinite nouns (person, student, individual, soldier, etc.) and indefinite pronouns (someone, each, anybody, neither). These words are "indefinite" because they do not definitely refer to males, nor do they definitely refer to females. Because they are singular, they should be followed by the singular pronouns "his or her," "his or hers," or "him or her," depending on context. However, people often (very often) mistakenly use plural pronouns such as they or theirs to refer to indefinite singular antecedents, like this:

  • Pronoun-antecedent agreement error example: Everyone has their own locker.
  • Pronoun-antecedent agreement error example: A person can padlock their locker.

The previous examples are incorrect. As you learned in the subject-verb agreement section, everyone is singular, and therefore it must have a singular pronoun. A person is also singular and should have a singular pronoun.

  • Correct: Everyone has his or her own locker.
  • Correct: A person can padlock his or her locker.

Note: Using his or her, him or her, he or she can be awkward and repetitive.


Solutions:

1. Make the noun plural.

Instead of writing “A person can padlock his or her locker,” write “People can padlock their lockers.”

2. Rewrite the sentence to omit the pronoun:

Instead of writing “Everyone is entitled to his or her private space,” write
“Everyone is entitled to a private space.”


Some Other Problematic Pronoun-Antecedent Situations

1. When antecedents are joined by or or nor the pronoun should agree with the antecedent closer to it.

Example: Neither the chicks nor their mother would ever leave its nest.

Note: For a more natural-sounding sentence, place the plural part of a compound subject second.

Example: Neither the mother nor her chicks would ever leave their nest.


2. Collective nouns are nouns that refer to groups, such as class, group, and jury. They take singular or plural pronouns depending on whether they refer to the group acting together as one unit (singular) or to the members of the group acting separately (plural).

Example: The jury was unanimous in its verdict. (The jury is acting as a unit, so we treat jury as singular.)

Example: The jury disagreed in their assessment of the case. (The jury members are acting individually, so we treat jury as plural.)

Note: To avoid awkward-sounding plural collective nouns, place the members of before the collective noun.

Example: The members of the jury disagreed in their assessment of the case.


3. Indefinite Words:

Four indefinite pronouns—both, few, many, several—are always plural and are referred to with plural pronouns.

Example: Few realize how their athletic abilities have changed.


The indefinite pronouns all, any, more, most, none, and some may be singular or plural depending on the word to which they refer:

Example: Most of the geysers have their own personality. (Most refers to geysers, which is plural.)

Example: All the money was counted when it changed hands. (All refers to money, which is singular.)


Exercise

Please print this exercise, mark the correct answers, and check your work against the version with answers.

Exercise on Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement Errors

Exercise on Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement Errors with Answers

 

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