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13.7: Pronoun Agreement

  • Page ID
    120107
    • Anonymous
    • LibreTexts
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    Audio Version (February 2022):

    Pronouns help a writer avoid constant repetition. If there were no pronouns, we would soon be frustrated by reading sentences like "Asha said Asha was tired." A pronoun, however, can refer back to a word from earlier in the text so we don't have to repeat it: "Asha said she was tired."

    Since pronouns can be singular or plural and gender-neutral, feminine, or masculine, we need to make sure that we use the pronoun form that matches the word it refers to. (The word the pronoun refers to is often called the antecedent.) Pronoun agreement errors occur when the pronoun and the word it refers to do not match, or agree with each other.

    Examples of pronoun agreement
    Sample sentence with a pronoun and the noun it refers to in bold Explanation
    Lani complained that she was exhausted.

    She refers to LaniLani is the antecedent of she.

    Kim left the party early, so I did not see them until Monday at work.

    Them refers to Kim, who takes gender-neutral they/them pronouns and identifies as nonbinary. Kim is the antecedent of them.

    Crina and Rosalie have been best friends ever since they started high school.

    They refers to Crina and RosalieCrina and Rosalie is the antecedent of they.

     

    An Asian nonbinary transmasculine person sits smiling with hands out on their lap.
    A person who identifies as nonbinary may take they/them pronouns. Photo by Steve Rainwater on Flickr, licensed CC BY-SA 2.0.

     

    Making pronouns agree in person

    If you use a consistent person, your reader is less likely to be confused.

    Pronoun agreement in person
    Person Singular Pronouns Plural Pronouns
    First Person I, me, my, mine we, us, our, ours
    Second Person you, your, yours you, your, yours
    Third Person
    • he, him, his (male)
    • she, her (female)
    • they, them (nonbinary or gender unknown)
    • it, its (gender-neutral for non-persons)

    they, them, their, theirs

    When to use singular they

    You may have been taught not to use "they" to refer to just one person. It has long been common in speech to use "they" to refer to one person, but for years grammarians declared it incorrect. This rule has changed in recent years. Singular they has become accepted as a way to counter sexism in language and promote inclusivity. As of 2019, the Associated Press, the Oxford English Dictionary, the Chicago Manual of Style, the MLA style manual, and the APA style manual all accept use of singular they. The MLA article "How Do I Use Singular They?" outlines the following two cases: 

    1. Singular they can refer to a person who takes they/them pronouns.
      A name tag that reads "Hello my name is..." Underneath the name Michael is handwritten and the words "they/them" are handwritten and circled.
      "Gender Neutral Pronouns" by The Focal Project on Flickr is licensed CC BY-NC 4.0.
      Merriam-Webster's dictionary added this use of they in 2019, as discussed in the article "Singular 'They': Though singular 'they' is old, 'they' as a nonbinary pronoun is new—and useful." Many people do not feel 100% male or 100% female. If a person indicates that their pronoun is they/them, go ahead and use they or them even in cases where you are referring just to that one person. For a full discussion of etiquette around pronouns and gender identity, see MyPronouns.org.

    2. Singular they can refer to a general case where gender is unknown or irrelevant.  Previously, we were taught to use his or her in this case, but now they is preferred. For example, if we want to refer to a student's search for housing, we might write, "A student who can't find affordable housing should check if their college offers resources."
    Examples of correct and incorrect pronoun agreement in person
    Sample sentence with the pronouns and antecedents in bold Explanation
    Check mark in greenWhen a customer takes a Lyft, you should tip. Incorrect: the antecedent customer is third person, but the pronoun you is second person
    Check mark in greenWhen a customer takes a Lyft, they should tip. Correct: the antecedent customer is third person, and the pronoun they is third person. We use singular they to describe the general customer since their gender is unknown.  
    Check mark in greenWhen Shanell takes a Lyft, they always tip.

    Correct if Shanell takes they/them pronouns: in that case, the third-person antecedent Shanell agrees with the nonbinary singular third-person pronoun they.

    An "X" on a red backgroundWhen Shanell takes a Lyft, she always tips.

    Correct if Shanell takes she/her pronouns: the third-person singular antecedent Shanell agrees with the third-person singular pronoun she.

    Making pronouns agree in number

    If the pronoun takes the place of or refers to a singular noun, the pronoun must also be singular. Likewise, we need a plural pronoun to refer to a plural noun.

    Examples of correct and incorrect pronoun agreement in number
    Sample sentence with the pronouns and antecedents in bold Explanation
    Check mark in greenIf an undocumented student wants to apply for a scholarship, they can ask their college financial aid office for resources. Correct: the antecedent student is singular, and the pronouns they and them are singular in this case. We use singular they to describe the student since their gender is unknown. 
    Check mark in greenIf undocumented students want to apply for a scholarship, they can ask their college financial aid office for resources. Correct: the antecedent students is plural, and the pronoun they is plural. 
    An "X" on a red backgroundIf we want to apply for a scholarship, I can ask my college financial aid office for resources. Incorrect: the antecedent we is plural, and the pronouns and my are singular. 
    Check mark in greenIf I want to apply for a scholarship, I can ask my college financial aid office for resources. Correct: the antecedent I is singular, and the pronouns and my are singular. 

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Edit the following paragraph by correcting pronoun agreement errors in number and person.

    Over spring break I visited my older cousin, Diana, and they took me to a butterfly exhibit at a museum. Diana and I have been close ever since she was young. Our mothers are twin sisters, and she is inseparable! Diana knows how much I love butterflies, so it was their special present to me. I have a soft spot for caterpillars too. I love them because something about the way it transforms is so interesting to me. One summer my grandmother gave me a butterfly growing kit, and you got to see the entire life cycle of five Painted Lady butterflies. I even got to set it free. So when my cousin said they wanted to take me to the butterfly exhibit, I was really excited!

    A special case: indefinite pronouns

    Indefinite pronouns do not refer to a specific person or thing and are usually singular. When referring to a person, use the singular they, not "he or she," as explained above. The following are some common indefinite pronouns.

     

    Examples of correct and incorrect indefinite pronoun agreement
    Sample sentence with the pronouns and antecedents in bold Explanation
    An "X" on a red backgroundEveryone should do what he can to help. Incorrect:  The antecedent everyone is singular and gender-neutral. The pronoun he is singular and male. 
    Check mark in greenEveryone should do what they can to help. Correct: The antecedent everyone is singular and gender-neutral. The pronoun they is singular in this case and gender-neutral. 

    A special case: collective nouns

    Collective nouns suggest more than one person but are usually considered singular. Look over the following examples of collective nouns.

     

    Examples of correct and incorrect collective noun agreement
    Sample sentence with the pronouns and antecedents in bold Explanation
    An "X" on a red backgroundThe jury has reached their verdict. Incorrect:  The antecedent collective noun jury is singular, gender-neutral, and refers to an entity, not a person. The pronoun their could refer to a single person or to multiple things or people. 
    Check mark in greenThe jury has reached its verdict. Correct: The antecedent collective noun jury is singular, gender-neutral, and refers to an entity, not a person. The pronoun its is singular and refers to a non-person.

     

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Complete each of the following sentences by adding a pronoun that agrees with the noun it refers to. 

    1. In the current economy, nobody wants to waste ________ money on frivolous things.
    2. If anybody chooses to go to medical school, ________ must be prepared to work long hours.
    3. The plumbing crew did ________ best to repair the broken pipes before the next ice storm.
    4. If someone is rude to you, try giving ________ a smile in return.
    5. My family has ________ faults, but I still love them no matter what.
    6. The school of education plans to train ________ students to be literacy tutors.
    7. The commencement speaker said that each student has a responsibility toward ________.
    8. My mother’s singing group has ________ rehearsals on Thursday evenings.
    9. No one should suffer ________ pains alone.
    10. I thought the flock of birds lost ________ way in the storm.

    Making pronouns agree in case

    The pronouns I and me refer to the same person, but they are different in case. I is used for the subject of a sentence, and me is used for the object of an action, as in "She helped me." Subject pronouns function as subjects in a sentence. Object pronouns function as the object of a verb or of a preposition.

    Singular subject and object pronouns
    Subject pronouns Object pronouns
    I me
    you you
    he, she, it, they (gender-neutral or non-binary use) him, she, its, their (gender-neutral or nonbinary use)

     

    Plural subject and object pronouns
    Subject pronouns Object pronouns
    we us
    you you
    they them

    In the following sentences, the pronouns she and they serve as subjects:

    1. She loves tai chi.
    2. Every summer, they picked up litter from the local beach.

    In the following sentences, the pronouns him and it serve as objects:

    1. Marie leaned over and kissed him.
    2. Jingyi moved it to the corner.

    Tip

    Note that a pronoun can also be the object of a preposition, as in the sentence "My mother stood between us." The pronoun us is the object of the preposition between. It answers the question between whom?

    Compound subject pronouns are two or more pronouns joined by a conjunction or a preposition that function together as the subject of the sentence. Compound object pronouns are two or more pronouns joined by a conjunction or a preposition that function together as the object of the sentence.

    Examples of correct and incorrect pronoun case with compound subjects
    Sample sentence with the pronouns in bold Explanation
    An "X" on a red backgroundMe and Ananya just started learning Arabic. Incorrect:  The pronoun me is in object case but is used as part of the compound subject of the sentence.
    Check mark in greenAnanya and I just started learning Arabic. Correct: The pronoun is in subject case and is used as part of the compound subject of the sentence.
    An "X" on a red background The conversation group helped Ananya and I learn Arabic. Incorrect: The pronoun is in subject case but is used as part of the compound object of the verb helped.
    Check mark in green The conversation group helped Ananya and me learn Arabic. Correct: The pronoun me is in object case and is used as part of the compound object of the verb helped.

    Notes

    • It is standard to write Ananya and me rather than me and Ananya. This rule developed because it is considered more polite to refer to ourselves after another person.
    • One way to check whether the pronoun case in a compound subject is correct is to try the sentence with only the pronoun. For example, "Me just started learning Arabic" sounds more obviously incorrect.
    • Exercise \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Revise any sentences in which the subject and object pronouns are used incorrectly.

    1. Meera and me enjoy doing yoga together on Sundays.
    2. She and him have decided to sell their house.
    3. Between you and I, I do not think Jeffrey will win the election.
    4. Us and our friends have game night the first Thursday of every month.
    5. They and I met while on vacation in Mexico.
    6. Napping on the beach never gets boring for Alice and I.
    7. New Year’s Eve is not a good time for she and I to have a serious talk.
    8. You exercise much more often than me.
    9. I am going to the comedy club with Yolanda and she.
    10. The cooking instructor taught her and me a lot.

    A special case: who versus whom

    Who or whoever is always the subject of a verb. Use who or whoever when the pronoun performs the action indicated by the verb. On the other hand, whom and whomever serve as objects. They are used when the pronoun does not perform an action. Use whom or whomever when the pronoun is the direct object of a verb or the object of a preposition.

    Examples of correct use of who and whom
    Sample sentence with the pronouns in bold Explanation
    Check mark in greenWho won the game last Tuesday? Correct:  The word who is the subject of the verb won, so subject case is appropriate.
    Check mark in greenI wonder who came up with that terrible idea! Correct: The word who is the subject of the verb cameso subject case is appropriate even though who is also the object of the verb wonder. Who is the subject within its own clause.
    Check mark in greenWhom did Frank marry the third time? Correct: The word whom functions as the direct object of the verb marry, so object case is appropriate.
    Check mark in green From whom did you buy that old CD player?. Correct: The word whom functions as the object of the preposition from so object case is appropriate.

    Tip

    If you are having trouble deciding when to use who and whom, try this trick. Take the following sentence: "Who/Whom do I consider my best friend?" Reorder the sentence in your head, using either she or her, he or him, or they or them in place of who or whom.

    • I consider her my best friend.
    • I consider she my best friend.

    The second sentence will sound wrong to experienced English speakers.  So the trick is, if you can use her, him, or them, you should use whom.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{4}\)

    Complete the following sentences by adding who or whom.

    1. ________ hit the home run?
    2. I remember ________ won the Academy Award for Best Actor last year.
    3. To ________ is the letter addressed?
    4. I have no idea ________ left the iron on, but I am going to find out.
    5. ________ are you going to recommend for the internship?
    6. With ________ are you going to Hawaii?
    7. No one knew ________ the famous actor was.
    8. ________ in the office knows how to fix the copy machine?
    9. From ________ did you get the concert tickets?
    10. No one knew ________ ate the cake mom was saving.

    Attributions 

    Adapted by Anna Mills from Writing for Successcreated by an author and publisher who prefer to remain anonymous, adapted and presented by the Saylor Foundation and licensed CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.


    13.7: Pronoun Agreement is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anonymous.