Pronoun Agreement

Note pad with, Note to self: Get rid of pronoun-antecedent agreement errors! written on it.

You have looked at many pronouns, but let’s stop and consider antecedents, the words or groups of words to which pronouns refer. When locating antecedents, it’s helpful to know that they usually, but not always, come before pronouns in a sentence (ante- means before).

In some sentences like this example, however, the antecedent is after the pronoun:

Now combine the pronoun and antecedent information to begin editing for pronoun-antecedent agreement. Here is the main rule to follow:

Pronouns must agree with their antecedents in number (singular or plural); person (first, second, or third); and gender (male, female, or neuter).

In this drawing, a woman holds a sign which reads” “If you need some, Phillip Martin draws a lot of clipart.” The pronoun “some” agrees with its antecedent “clip art.”

Source: Antecedents, Phillip Martin

Agreement in number

Be sure singular pronouns are matched with singular antecedents and plural pronouns are matched with plural antecedents. That is fairly simple except when working with indefinite pronouns, which we will discuss further.

Agreement in person

Illogical shifts in a sentence from one viewpoint (person) to another can be confusing to readers. For example, the following sentence begins in third person and shifts to second person:

Agreement in gender

It’s simple to catch errors in which a man is referred to as she or a woman as he, but those mistakes rarely happen. Using all masculine or all feminine pronouns when referring to antecedents such as worker or nurse, however, can be a dilemma. We’ll tackle that problem in this section, too.


Agreement problem #1Indefinite pronouns

Sometimes antecedents may be pronouns, but the pronouns and antecedent pronouns must still agree. Agreement can be tricky when the antecedent is an indefinite pronoun because most indefinite pronouns are singular even though they appear to be plural. (Look back at the chart and explanation of indefinite pronouns on earlier screens if you need to.)

Here’s something else to keep in mind as you work with indefinite pronouns. You know that the ways you speak and write usually aren’t the same because speaking has less structure than writing. Although a sentence such as "Everyone says they are smart" might sound OK if you and your friends are talking, it is incorrect. The indefinite pronoun everyone is singular; the pronoun they, however, is plural, but what does they refer to? Yes, it refers to everyone, so there is not pronoun-antecedent agreement. To fix the sentence, you can do one of two things:

  1. Make the antecedent and verb plural to match the pronoun (People say they are smart), or
  2. Make the pronoun and verb singular to match the antecedent (Everyone says he or she is smart). Using he and she too much, however, can be awkward; we will address that issue in the upcoming section.

Yes, most indefinite pronouns are singular, but don’t forget the others. Check for pronoun-antecedent agreement in this sentence:

The antecedent both is plural, and the pronoun his is singular, so there is not agreement. One way to fix the sentence would be to make the antecedent singular:

Stop for a moment to think about an important point: Sometimes many words, phrases, and/or clauses separate the antecedent and pronoun, but no matter how long the sentence is, the antecedent and pronoun must agree. For example, Each of the girls—no matter whether short or tall, blonde or brunette, fair or dark—hopes to have her name called as a finalist in the pageant. The antecedent is the singular indefinite pronoun each, which agrees with the singular pronoun her.

Don’t get frustrated and become lost in all the words. Instead, systematically find a pronoun and ask yourself if it agrees in number, gender (if applicable), and person with the word to which it refers. If it does, you have pronoun-antecedent agreement; if not, you will need to change something about the sentence to make it correct.


Agreement problem #2—Compound antecedents

Use plural pronouns with most compound antecedents joined by and.

Special situations: Use a singular pronoun if both parts of the compound antecedent refer to the same person or thing, or when the word each or every precedes the compound antecedent.

With compound antecedents joined by or or nor, use pronouns that agree with the nearest antecedent. In this case, if one antecedent is singular and the other is plural, it is best to put the plural antecedent closer to the pronoun to avoid awkward-sounding sentences.


Agreement problem #3Collective nouns

Collective nouns refer to groups of people or things regarded as single entities, so the pronouns used for collective nouns should be singular. Ask yourself if the group is acting together as a whole.

Occasionally, however, a collective noun refers to the group as individual members, so it needs a plural pronoun. Ask yourself if the unit members are acting individually.

Sometimes the singular or plural verb will give you a clue as to whether the collective noun is singular or plural. In the sentence above, is takes the singular form, which is a clue that orchestra is a singular antecedent and requires a singular pronoun.

4Agreement problem #4Gender

Most antecedents are obviously masculine, feminine, or neuter, so there is no problem matching them with appropriate gender-specific pronouns. The need for pronoun-antecedent agreement can, however, create problems with some pronoun gender designation. In the past, it was acceptable to use a masculine pronoun to refer to unspecified or mixed genders (i.e., Each doctor needs to renew his license yearly. The worker ate his lunch at the factory.) However, many people today say it is gender bias to use all masculine (or all feminine) pronouns when gender is unknown. Be aware of implied gender bias and do your best to remove it from your writing. If an antecedent is not gender-specific, use one of the following strategies to maintain pronoun-antecedent agreement but rid your paper of any hint of gender bias.

Revise the sentence to avoid the use of the pronoun altogether.

Make the antecedent plural so you can use a plural pronoun.

Use he or she, his or her, him or her, or his or hers in place of a gender-specific pronoun.

While this strategy has its place, using it too often can make writing seem wordy, dry, and artificial. Use it sparingly! In case you’re wondering, alternatives like s/he are even clumsier.

The use of singular indefinite pronouns (everyone, somebody, either, etc.) often calls for the his or her strategy, so be careful.