- 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 or they. 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.
Reduce gender bias in writing with thoughtful use of pronouns.
If you know the gender identity of the person you are writing about, use the appropriate pronoun when you refer to them (e.g., they, she, he, etc.).
Not acceptable (only male pronouns for unknown subject/antecedent): “an effective teacher provides clear feedback to his students”
Acceptable (appropriate pronoun to reflect known gender identity): “Elijah is an effective teacher who provides clear feedback to his students.”
To ensure your language is inclusive and equitable, avoid use of binary pronouns (‘his or her’) in reference to unknown subjects. Instead you can refer to the subjects by name or with the epicene, or gender-neutral “they” or “their.” In some instances, it will also work to pluralize subjects/antecedents where you use the pronoun “they.”
Not acceptable (binary pronouns for unknown subject/antecedent): “an effective teacher provides clear feedback to his or her students”
Acceptable (epicene/singular they): “an effective teacher provides clear feedback to their students.”
Acceptable plural form: "effective teachers provide clear feedback to their students."
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]
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.
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 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).