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Tutorial for Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement
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What is it?

Pronouns and antecedents must agree in person, number, and gender.

Mr. Tobias smiled when he saw me.

(The pronoun he agrees with its antecedent, Mr. Tobias, in person [both are third person], in number [both are singular], and in gender [both are masculine]).

Everyone knows his or her job and works hard.

(His or her agrees with its antecedent, the pronoun everyone, in person [both are third person], in number [his or her is singular, as is everyone], and in gender [both his or he and everyone can refer to either a male or female]).

How to find errors

In most situations, you will instinctively choose the correct pronoun and antecedent. In some situations, however, you may be unsure of which pronoun to use. Look for the following pronoun agreement problems in your writing:

  1. Plural pronouns should not be used to refer to indefinite pronouns that are singular in meaning.

    Singular indefinite pronouns include the following:

    another anywhere everyone none other
    anybody each everything no one somebody
    anyone either neither nothing someone
    anything everybody nobody one something

    Faulty

    If anyone wants me, give them my e-mail address.

    (The pronoun them, which is plural, does not agree in number with its antecedent, anyone, which is singular.)

  2. Singular pronouns should not be used to refer to a compound antecedent joined by and.

    However, if the singular antecedents joined by and refer to the same person, or if the word each or every comes before the antecedent, a singular pronoun is correct, so be careful.

    Faulty

    The walrus and the carpenter ate his oysters greedily.

    (The singular pronoun his does not agree in number with the compound antecedent the walrus and the carpenter. The walrus and the carpenter are two creatures, not one, so the pronoun should be plural, not singular.)

  3. Pronouns should agree with the noun closer to the verb when a compound antecedent is joined by or or nor.

    Faulty

    Either the panda or the sea otters should have its new habitat soon.

    (The singular pronoun its does not agree in number with the plural antecedent sea otters, which is closer to the verb in this sentence.)

  4. The pronouns being used to refer to a collective noun can be singular or plural, depending on the meaning.

    When you refer to a group acting together as a unit, use a singular pronoun. When you refer to the members of a group acting individually, use a plural pronoun.

    Faulty

    The wolf pack surrounds their quarry.

    (The plural pronoun their does not agree in number with the collective noun pack, which is singular in this sentence. The pack is acting as a unit.)

    Faulty

    After the false alarm, the bomb squad returned to its homes.

    (The singular pronoun its does not agree in number with the collective noun squad, which is plural in this sentence. The members of the squad acted individually.)

How to fix errors

Here are some guidelines for correcting the most common pronoun-antecedent agreement errors.

  1. Use singular pronouns to refer to singular indefinite pronouns. If the pronoun and the antecedent do not agree, change either the pronoun or the indefinite pronoun to which it refers. If you need to use a singular pronoun to refer to an indefinite pronoun, use he or she, him or her, or his or her to avoid sexism.

    If anyone wants to contact me, give him or herthem my e-mail address.

    Overuse of him or her can create awkward sentences. You can avoid the problem by using a plural antecedent and a plural pronoun.

    PeopleEveryone should check their credit card statements month.

    An alternative is to eliminate pronouns entirely.

    No one should lose atheir job because of family responsibilities.

  2. Use a plural pronoun to refer to a compound antecedent joined by and unless the singular antecedents joined by and refer to the same person, or unless the word each or every comes before the antecedent.

    The walrus and the carpenter ate theirhis oysters greedily.
    (The plural pronoun their agrees in number with the compound antecedent, the walrus and the carpenter.)

    As a father and a husband, he is a success.
    (This sentence is correct, because the singular pronoun he refers to the singular antecedents a father and a husband, which refer to a single person.)

    Every nut and bolt was in its place for the inspection.
    (This sentence is correct, because the singular pronoun its refers to an antecedent preceded by the word every.)

  3. Use a pronoun that agrees with the noun closer to the verb when a compound antecedent is joined by or or nor.

    Either the panda or the sea otters should have itstheir new habitat soon.

    (The plural pronoun their agrees in number with the plural antecedent sea otters, which is closer to the verb in this sentence. You would use its if the antecedent were the sea otters or the panda.)

  4. Use a singular or plural pronoun to refer to a collective noun, depending on the meaning. When you refer to a group acting together as a unit, use a singular pronoun. When you refer to the members of a group acting individually, use a plural pronoun.

    The wolf pack surrounds itstheir quarry.
    (The pack is acting as a unit, so the singular pronoun its should be used to refer to the antecedent pack.)

    After the false alarm, the bomb squad returned to theirits homes.

    (The members of the squad acted individually, so the plural pronoun their should be used to refer to the antecedent squad.)

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