Pronoun agreement is a common problem for those who want to speak and write properly. Many languages handle pronouns differently than English, especially those with grammatical gender. Fortunately, with some information and tips, you can resolve these challenges. Learn what pronoun agreement is through example sentences.
Pronoun Agreement Explained: Basic Rules and Avoiding Errors
Defining Noun-Pronoun Agreement
In most cases, a pronoun refers back to a noun that appeared previously in the sentence or conversation. This noun is called the antecedent of the pronoun, and the noun and pronoun must agree as to whether they are singular or plural. For example:
Amelia was going to buy her mother a bracelet. She went to a jewelry story.
Amelia is the antecedent of the pronoun. She is the pronoun. When using the pronoun she, the reader knows that means Amelia, without having to use Amelia's name over and over.
When using a pronoun, it must agree with the antecedent in number and gender. Look at some of the problem areas of pronouns and their usage, including definite pronouns, indefinite pronouns, gender issues, subject pronouns, and object pronouns.
Gender Agreement With Pronouns
Typically, when it comes to gender, you use he for males and she for females. Historically, he was used as a gender neutral pronoun. However, this has gone out of style, as has using he/she or she/he. Instead, most style guides — including the AP Style Guide — now suggest the singular they is the best gender neutral pronoun. For example:
Everyone on the airplane sat in their assigned seat.
Regardless of the pronoun you use, you need to make sure it's still used appropriately as a singular or plural pronoun. If you don't know a person's pronoun preference, it's best to default to the singular use of they. Explore examples of gender and pronouns.
- Darleen didn't come to school today. I hope she is alright.
- Billy's basketball skills are unmatched. He'll definitely make the team.
- The neighbor has been waiting at the door. They need some sugar.
Singular and Plural Pronoun Agreement: Definite Pronouns
Definite pronouns are pronouns that replace words that have already been stated specifically in the sentence. There are two kinds of definite pronouns: personal and demonstrative.
A personal pronoun refers to a specific person. Personal pronouns come in singular and plural forms. You use a singular pronoun for one person, like Gary, and you use plural pronouns for more than one person. For example:
She runs to her car for her notebook.
Since the pronoun is the singular she, the verb runs is also singular. View a few different singular and plural pronouns along with how they are used in a sentence.
|Singular or Plural?||Pronoun||Example Sentence|
|singular||I||I went to the grocery store.|
|singular||me||Why do you think it was me that broke it?|
|singular/plural||you||You didn't have to do that.|
|singular||she||Amelia is amazing; she is my best friend.|
|singular||her||Did you see her outfit? Ashley really knows how to dress.|
|singular||he||He did an amazing job at the track meet.|
|singular||him||I haven't seen him around in a while.|
|singular||it||Don't look at it.|
|singular/plural||they||They aren't exactly sure how to find their way to the park.|
|plural||we||We didn't know where the park was, but we found it.|
|plural||us||Were you talking to us?|
|plural||them||Do you know them?|
Demonstrative pronouns indicate a specific subject. When using demonstrative pronouns, you could imagine yourself pointing at the object. That and this are singular, referring to a single subject, while these and those are plural. See how these demonstrative pronouns are used in a sentence.
|that||You shouldn't touch that.|
|this||This is what I was talking about.|
|these||These are for Mary and Joe.|
|those||Do you remember where I set those papers?|
Tricky Indefinite Pronoun Agreement
Indefinite pronouns include all pronouns that refer to a subject or group of unknown size. These are an exception to the plural rule. Indefinite pronouns are always singular. That may seem strange — obviously, a word like everybody refers to more than one person — but the purpose of an indefinite pronoun is to make it possible to talk about an indefinite group as a single entity. Being singular things, they take the singular they.
Why isn’t anybody taking their notes?
Did anyone finish their assignment?
Everyone needs to open their book.
No one has completed their assignment.
Nobody followed the rules for their assignment.
Somebody has left their assignment on the desk.
Someone needs to sign their name to the assignment
Each and Every Pronoun Agreement
Other exceptions to the singular and plural rule are the words each and every. They are singular and make everything in the sentence singular as well. See this through examples.
- Each cat drank from its bowl.
- Every cat, dog, and rat in the neighborhood had its fill of garbage.
- Each person had their own locker.
- Every artist had an opinion about their exhibit.
Subject and Object Pronouns
One of the most important parts of noun-pronoun agreement is determining whether the noun being replaced is a subject or an object. In English, a subject is that which does the action, while the object is that to which the action is done.
Subject pronouns are he, she, I, we, they, who, whoever, you, and it.
In the case of a compound subject, each individual subject needs the subject form.
- She and I went to the store.
- You and whoever can go collect the tests from the office.
- He and I were sent to the office.
Object pronouns are him, her, me, us, them, whom, whomever, you, and it.
As with compound subjects, when using compound objects, each individual object requires the object pronoun.
- Sandra does not like me or him.
- I didn't want to be in line with her and him.
- It's either you or them.
Tips to Improve Your Writing
Certain structures tend to come up when dealing with pronoun-antecedent agreement. The following are some useful tricks to make those structures easier to parse.
- appositives - Appositives are words that rename or augment a pronoun, as in "we college students" or "us sports fans." If an appositive has made you unsure of which pronoun to use, simply cross out the main noun. "Us college students are protesting" becomes "us are protesting." The mistake is clear.
- multiple subjects or objects - Keeping track of multiple subjects and objects can be tricky. When in doubt, use the same trick as with the appositives and simply cross out the extraneous words. For example, "He gave Betty and me a copy" becomes "He gave me a copy." When you remove "Betty and," the right word is obvious.
- who vs. whom - When in doubt about using who or whom, rephrase the sentence and replace who or whom with he or him, respectively. For instance, "Whom should we ask?" rephrases to "Should we ask him?"
- whose vs. who's - Know the difference between whose and who's. Who's is a contraction for "who is" and is not the possessive form of the word "who."
- you - In writing, the word "you" refers to the reader. Make sure you are not using it to refer to people in general.
One final tip: A pronoun refers to a noun and that relationship needs to be clear. Watch out for compound nouns so the pronoun does not confuse the reader.
Pronouns seem so simple. Most are short words, almost all are used regularly, and mastering them is one of the requirements of learning English. But, these little words can be deceptively tricky. For even more English nuance, check out our list of the most common grammar mistakes. It's always a good day to become less wrong!