We use the words called pronouns to refer to or to replace other words (which are always nouns), which we call their antecedents or referents—the terms are interchangeable. The connection between the pronoun and its antecedent or referent must always be clear in order to avoid confusion: pronouns need to agree in person, number, and gender with their antecedents.
Agreeing in Person
In grammar when we talk about person, we are really talking about the relationship between the writer, the reader, and the subject of the conversation. It’s like pointing a finger.
The first person pronouns are I, me, my, mine, myself, we, us, our, ours, and ourselves. The writers who use first person are obviously referring back to themselves. The finger points back at the writer.
Ex: I should go home to finish my essay for ENG 3430.
The second person pronouns are you, your, and your, yourselves. Writers who use second person are speaking directly to a reader. The pronoun refers directly to the reader. The finger points at the reader.
Ex: You should go home to finish your essay for ENG 3430.
***Note: You should not use you to refer to everyone, as in the following sentence:
You pay your taxes.
In this case the writer wants to say all taxpayers should pay their taxes, not the reader specifically.
The third person pronouns are he, she, it, they, him, her, them, his, hers, its, and theirs, himself, herself, itself, themselves. When writers use the third person, the pronoun refers to the persons or things being spoken about. The finger points, not at writer or reader, but at someone or something else.
Ex. She should go home to finish her ENG 3430 essay.
Pronouns that refer to the same noun or nouns shouldn't shift from one "person" to another within a discussion.
Incorrect Ex: Psychologists should review their patients' records carefully before you make a diagnosis. (The pronouns their and you both refer to psychologists, the noun being spoken about, which requires that they both be third person pronouns.)
Revised Ex: Psychologists should review their patients' records carefully before they make a diagnosis. (This kind of shift is the most common problem writers have in making pronouns agree with their antecedents in person.)
Agreement in Number
In grammar, number indicates how many, whether something is singular (one) or plural (more than one). Pronouns should always agree with their antecedents in number.
- When two or more antecedents are joined by the word "and," then the pronoun
referring to the antecedents should be plural.
Incorrect Ex: Helen and Allie showed us her Easter hat.
Revised Ex: Helen and Allie showed us their Easter hats.
- When two or more singular antecedents are joined by the word "or" or "nor,"
then the pronoun referring to the antecedents should agree with the nearest of the
Incorrect Ex: Either the officers or Jeff will present their ideas at the meeting.
Revised Ex: Either the officers or Jeff will present his ideas at the meeting.
- A pronoun used as the subject of a sentence agrees in number with its antecedent
even though the antecedent comes after the pronoun.
Incorrect Ex: They are the tourist who signed up for the mountain hike.
Revised Ex: She is the tourist who signed up for the mountain hike.
- Collective nouns have either singular or plural pronouns, depending on the situation.
When the collective noun acts as a unit, use a third person singular pronoun (it).
When the individual members of the collective are acting individually, use the third
person plural (they).
Incorrect Ex: The committee is going to give their approval on Tuesday.
Revised Ex: The committee is going to give its approval on Tuesday. (In this case, the committee is acting as a unit, so the singular pronoun is called for.)
- Indefinite pronouns like everyone, each, everybody, anyone, anybody, everything,
either, one, neither, someone, something refer to nonspecific persons or things.
They seem to be plural, but they are really singular. Use singular pronouns.
Incorrect Ex.: Everyone wants to take their essay home to complete it.
Revised Ex.: Everyone wants to take his or her essay home to complete it.
Being Gender Sensitive
When the gender of an antecedent is not clear or not known, pronouns should not automatically default to either gender. For instance, not all doctors are male or all nurses female. Though not in itself an agreement issue, being gender sensitive sometimes causes agreement problems, most often in number.
Incorrect Ex.: A professor should always write comments on his graded assignments.
(This example is incorrect because it assumes that professors are men.)
Incorrect Ex.: A professor should always write comments on their graded assignments.
(This example is incorrect because the attempt to correct has created a number agreement problem—professor is singular and their is plural.)
Revised Ex.: A professor should always write comments on his or her graded assignments.
Professors should always write comments on their graded assignments.
You can test your understanding of this handout by completing Academic Center exercises available here.
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