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.
Defining Pronoun Agreement
In most cases, a pronoun refers back to a noun that appeared previously in the text or conversation. That noun is called the antecedent of the pronoun, and the noun and pronoun must agree as to whether they are singular or plural.
Let us look at some of the problem areas of pronouns and their usage, including indefinite pronouns, gender issues, subject pronouns, and object pronouns.
Gender and Pronouns
English has no widely used gender-neutral personal pronoun.
Defaulting to Male
Historically, English used he, the masculine pronoun, as the default. "He" was used not only when the subject was male, but also when referring to a group of multiple genders or a subject with no defined gender. Consider this sentence:
Everyone on the airplane sat in his assigned seat.
Here, "his" is referring to travelers of all genders, not just male.
Current Best Practices
Over time, the generic "he" has become less and less popular. Some people choose to use he/she or s/he to include both males and females, but even that is starting to lose favor.
Most style guides - including the AP Style Guide used by this website - now suggest the singular "they," as in:
Everyone on the airplane sat in their assigned seat.
Neither is perfect. "He" implies the subject is male, even if they aren't. "They" implies the subject is plural, even if they aren't. But, the best option to date is the singular "they."
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.
Indefinite pronouns include all pronouns that refer to a subject or group of unknown size. The indefinite pronouns are:
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 thing. Being singular things, they take the singular they: "Everyone who got to the bus stop late had trouble finding their seat."
Subject and Object Pronouns
One of the most important parts of 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. For example, "She and I went to the store."
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. For example, "Sandra does not like me or him."
Collective Nouns and Pronouns
One of the most distinctive differences between American English and English spoken elsewhere, particularly the UK and Commonwealth countries, is their approach to collective nouns.
A collective noun is a singular noun that describes a group, such as "band," "team" or indeed "group." Reviewing pronoun agreement example sentences is the best way to illustrate the difference.
- In American English, a sentence featuring a collective noun might be, "The study group submitted its project yesterday."
- In British English, the same sentence would be, "The study group submitted their project yesterday."
Both are correct: it's just a matter of where you're writing and for whom.
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!