Pronouns: Agreement and Reference


Rules for pronoun agreement

Things to be avoided

A pronoun must always agree in number and gender with its antecedent (the word or words to which the pronoun refers).

1. Number: A pronoun should agree in number with the noun it refers to.

My students always write their essays in ink. (Students- plural noun and their- plural pronoun)

Both Jack and Jill like their school.

My mother and father think that their daughter is still too young.

Either the students or the teacher will bring his laptop to the presentation.

Either the teacher or the students will bring their laptops to the presentation.

Not only the teacher but also the students were reading their books.

Not only the students but also the teacher was reading her book.

I like coffee when it has a lot of milk and sugar in it. (Coffee - uncountable therefore singular noun and it - singular pronoun)

Any of the third person singular pronouns, i.e. he, his, she, her, it, its, can be used depending on the meaning.

Everybody must bring his ID when coming to the exam.

Everybody must bring her ID when coming to the exam.

When a collective noun refers to a single unit, a singular pronoun is used.

The audience was great. it was even better than I expected.

However, if we refer to the individuals that compose that unit, we use a plural pronoun.

My family is very warm and supporting. I love them all.

2. Person: A pronoun must agree with the noun it replaces. Therefore, if you are writing in the first person (I), do not switch to second person (you), or third person (he/ she/ they)

Pronouns in generalizations

When you are writing essays, you have to make generalizations. You have a number of choices when you refer to people in general: you can use general nouns to refer to people, then of course, your choice of words depends on the target group you are writing about.

Plural nouns: people, students, human beings, teachers, men, women, children, etc. If you use a plural noun such as those, do not forget that you have to use a plural pronoun to refer to these nouns, i.e. “they/ their/ them”.

Singular nouns: A person, a student, a teacher, a child, etc. If you use a singular pronoun, then you have to use a singular pronoun to refer to them. However, as we discussed above, the use of the singular pronoun creates a gender problem since English discriminates between genders and there are different pronouns to refer to a male and a female. To avoid using sexist language in your writing refer to the handout non-sexist language. One way is using plural nouns and referring to them with “they/ them’ their”.

General “you”: You know that general you can be used to refer to people in general. In this handout, for example, you is used for general reference, it means the reader, or the student.

General “we”: If you include yourself in the subject, you can use we too. The important point here is consistency. The pronoun you use in your writing should not confuse the reader. Do not switch from they to you or from I to we.

Incorrect: People think that if you live in a big city our lives will be much easier.

Confusion: Who thinks? Who lives in big cities? Whose lives will be easier?Are they the same group of people or different subjects? This is an example of inconsistent reference and pronoun use and very confusing for the reader.

Correct: People think that if they live in a big city, their lives will be much easier.

Incorrect: Parents whose children fail in school tend to hold your children responsible rather than himself.

Confusion: Who holds whom responsible? Whose children are they? Who is himself?

Correct: Parents whose children fail in school tend to hold their children responsible rather than themselves.                    top of the page

 3. Ambiguity: Avoid any ambiguity in pronoun reference.

Incorrect: Jack does not want to play chess with his brother because he always wins.

Confusion: Who is this "he”? Jack or his brother? The sentence is ambiguous because we do not know who always wins.

Correct: Jack does not want to play chess with his brother because his brother always wins.

Incorrect: As I was taking my wallet out of my bag, I dropped it.

Did I drop the wallet or the bag? It is not clear in the sentence.

Correct: I dropped my wallet as I was taking it out of my bag.

4. Wrong antecedent: Sometimes a pronoun refers to a wrong antecedent. This problem usually occurs because the wrong antecedent comes between the pronoun and the real antecedent. To correct this error, place the pronoun as close to its antecedent as possible.

Incorrect: The teacher looked at her note cards, turned to her students, and put them in her bag.

Confusion: In this sentence it looks as if the teacher put her students in her bag. We can correct the sentence as

Correct:  The teacher looked at her note cards, put them in her bag, and turned to her students.

Prepared by Zeliha Gulcat                                          top of the page