When helping students with argument paragraphs, essays, or other writing, I often need to point out mistakes in pronoun agreement.
When proofreading and editing your written work, check to make sure that your pronouns agree with their antecedents.
The antecedent is simply the word or words (often a noun or noun phrase) that the pronoun is referring to (the word that comes before).
In the following sentences, the pronouns “he” and “his” stand in for the noun “Tom.”
Tom went to the store before he went to work. This is his usual routine.
The use of pronouns helps to eliminate nauseating repetition.
(Tom went to the store before Tom went to work. This is Tom’s usual routine.)
Check that your pronouns agree in number.
If you have a singular antecedent as in the example above, you need to have a singular pronoun. If you have a plural antecedent, you will need – you guessed it – a plural pronoun.
In the following example, “they” and “their” are plural pronouns referring to a plural noun.
The girls could not wait for the party. They were so excited to see their friends.
Well, that seems easy.
But wait, there’s more!
In the following example, there is a pronoun / antecedent mistake.
Everyone must bring their own lunch.
The pronoun “everyone” is treated as singular which means that we need a singular pronoun later in the sentence. The word “everyone” means basically “every single one,” even though you might be talking about many people.
In this case, there is a singular noun with a plural pronoun. To fix the mistake you need to make both plural or both singular. Below are two possibilities to correct the mistake.
Everyone must bring his or her own lunch.
All member must bring their lunch.
Notice that in the first corrected example there is a combination (his or her). This ensures gender neutral-language requirements. (Avoid using his/her in most formal writing.)
With the starting pronoun “everyone,” if literally all members of a group are female, you can use “her.” Of course, you can use “his” if all members are male.
There are other singular indefinite pronouns that act the same way.
Singular indefinite pronouns: each, either, neither, everyone, everybody, anyone, anybody, one, no one, nobody, someone, and somebody.
Plural indefinite pronouns that take a plural include several, few, both, and many.
Some indefinite pronouns may be either singular or plural: some, any, all, none, most. That doesn’t mean you get to choose. There are rules that control whether or not you should use a singular or plural pronoun. In general, when using a prepositional phrase and the object of the preposition is uncountable, use a singular pronoun. If the object of the preposition is countable, use a plural pronoun.
Some of the salt fell out of its container.
Some of the candies fell out of their bag.
One more note about pronouns.
Remember that your pronoun does need to be in the correct gender for individuals as well. This mistake is made less often, but it does happen.
Robert took his dog to the vet. (The pronoun “her” would be incorrect)
Maria never forgets her keys. (The pronoun “his” would be incorrect.)
This blog touches on the mistakes I see the most. There are several more rules dealing with pronouns with respect to collective nouns, compound subjects, titles, and so on.
Do proofread and edit your work. Do not overstress the small details, though. You should have fun writing and learn how to improve at the same time!
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