Pronoun Agreement and Reference
- What is a pronoun? What is an antecedent?
- Pronoun Agreement
- Problems with Pronoun Reference
A pronoun is a word such as I, you, he, she, it, they, who that takes the place of a noun.If we are talking about Brenda, we don't always have to use the noun, Brenda, we can use a pronoun to replace the word: she or her. We do this after we have used the noun, so we know exactly who or what the pronoun is referring to.
This noun is called the antecedent, and the pronoun must agree with its antecedent. We use she for Brenda to make the pronoun agree in gender with its antecedent, and we use she instead of they to make it agree in number.
A pronoun must agree with its antecedent.
Our son was born on May 1st. It weighed seven pounds. [Not Correct]
Our son was born on May 1st. He weighed seven pounds. [Correct]
In order to reduce gender bias in writing, avoid the use of male pronouns (‘he’ or ‘his’) as generic terms to apply to both sexes. In common usage is the epicene or gender-neutral singular pronoun ‘they'. However, not all formal writing currently supports this usage, deeming it too informal or ungrammatical; it is wise to consult disciplinary conventions regarding the use of gender pronouns.
An effective teacher provides clear feedback to his students. [gendered language]
An effective teacher provides clear feedback to his or her students. [two pronouns]
An effective teacher provides clear feedback to their students. [gender-neutral singular they]
Writers who wish to adhere to formal conventions for pronoun reference may wish to make the antecedent plural so the pronoun agrees in number.
Effective teachers provide clear feedback to their students. [plural antecedent and pronoun; gender irrelevant]
Use a singular pronoun after such words as each, either, neither, one, no one, everyone, someone, anyone, nobody, everybody, somebody, anybody. See more on singular indefinite pronouns.
Not one of the students received an A on their paper. [Incorrect sentence]
The above is something we might say, but it is wrong in formal, grammatically correct writing because it doesn't make logical sense: 'one' is singular and 'their' is plural.
Not one of the students received an A on his or her paper. [Correct but awkward]
In the above example, what is correct is also awkward. Sometimes it may be best to revise the sentence so that the antecedent is in the plural so the pronoun can also be plural:
All of the students received less than A on their papers. [Correct sentence]
Use a singular pronoun to refer to a collective or entity noun such as crowd or committee when the group or entity is considered as a whole.
The crowd, venting its anger, smashed the police car. [Correct sentence]
Use a plural pronoun to refer to a collective or entity noun when the members are thought of singly.
The committee are agreed that they must present their report to Parliament this month. [Correct sentence]
Use a plural pronoun to agree with two antecedents joined by and.
The owner and the manager of the business quickly made their fortunes. [Correct sentence]
Every pronoun should refer to a specific antecedent that has been mentioned and is close by. If the antecedent is missing or too far away from the pronoun, it can be difficult for the reader to understand what noun the pronoun refers to.
If a pronoun could refer to more than one noun, the noun it is referring to is unclear or ambiguous.
John told Gordon that Mr. Walsh did not remember him. [Incorrect sentence]
In the above example, we do not know if the him refers to John or Gordon.
Such ambiguity can be avoided by using direct speech or by avoiding a pronoun and using a noun instead.
The following examples are all correct:
John said to Gordon, "Mr. Walsh does not remember me."
John said to Gordon, "Mr. Walsh does not remember you."
John told Gordon that Mr. Walsh did not remember Gordon.
Pronouns replace nouns, that is they replace one noun: a person, place, thing, concept. For example, them replaces students. General reference means the pronoun is being used by the writer to refer to a general idea in a preceding phrase or sentence rather than to a specific, identifiable noun.
The school can no longer raise money by selling lottery tickets because it is now forbidden by school board regulations. [Incorrect sentence]
In the above example, the pronoun ‘it’ does not have an antecedent. ‘It’ is referring to the phrase, selling lottery tickets. This is more than a pronoun can do.
The school can no longer raise money by selling lottery tickets because this sale is now forbidden by school board regulations. [Correct sentence]
The school can no longer raise money through the sale of lottery tickets because it is now forbidden by school board regulations. [Correct sentence]
A weak reference occurs when there is no antecedent at all for the pronoun to refer to.
As she watched the sailboat, it suddenly got up, filling the sails. [Incorrect sentence]
In the above example, the pronoun ‘it’ would seem to refer to the adjacent noun sailboat. But the sentence doesn't make sense. The pronoun does not have an antecedent.
As she watched the sailboat, the wind suddenly got up, filling the sails. [Correct sentence]
Before publishing her recipe book, Liz personally tested them all. [Incorrect sentence]
The pronoun ‘them’ does not have an antecedent in this sentence, although clearly the writer meant them to refer back to ‘recipe’. Although ‘recipe’ is a noun, in this sentence it is being used as an adjective, a word that modifies or describes a noun. As such, it cannot be an antecedent to a pronoun (a word that replaces a noun not a modifier).
Before publishing her recipe book, Liz personally tested all the recipes. [Correct sentence]
Before publishing her recipes, Liz personally tested them all. [Correct sentence]