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
1. Lani complained that she was exhausted.
- She refers to Lani.
- Lani is the antecedent of she.
2. 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.
- Humberto is the antecedent of them.
3. Crina and Rosalie have been best friends ever since they started high school.
- They refers to Crina and Rosalie.
- Crina and Rosalie is the antecedent of they.
Making pronouns agree in person
If you use a consistent person, your reader is less likely to be confused.
|Person||Singular Pronouns||Plural Pronouns|
|First Person||I||me||my (mine)||we||us||our (ours)|
|Second Person||you||you||your (yours)||you||you||your (your)|
|Third Person||he, she, it, they||him, her, it, them||his, her, its, their||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:
- Singular they can refer to a person who takes they/them pronouns. 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.
- 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."
- Incorrect: When a person (3rd) goes to a restaurant, you (2nd) should leave a tip.
- Incorrect if Shanell takes she/her pronouns: When Shanell goes to a restaurant, they should leave a tip
- Correct if Shanell takes they/them pronouns: When Shanell goes to a restaurant, they should leave a tip.
- Correct: When a person (3rd) goes to a restaurant, they (3rd) should leave a tip.
- Correct: When we (1st) go to a restaurant, I should (1st) should leave a tip.
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.
Correct: If a student (sing.) wants to return a book to the bookstore, they (sing.) must have a receipt.
Correct: If students (plur.) want to return a book to the bookstore, they (plur.) must have a receipt.
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.
Incorrect: Everyone (sing.) should do what he (plur.) can to help.
Correct: Everyone (sing.) should do what they (sing.) can to help.
Correct: Someone (sing.) left their (plur.) backpack in the library.
Correct: Someone (sing.) left his or her (sing.) backpack in the library.
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.
Incorrect: Lara’s company (sing.) will have their (plur.) annual picnic next week.
Correct: Lara’s company (sing.) will have its (sing.) annual picnic next week.
Complete the following sentences by selecting the correct pronoun. Copy the completed sentence onto your own sheet of paper. Then circle the noun the pronoun replaces.
- In the current economy, nobody wants to waste ________ money on frivolous things.
- If anybody chooses to go to medical school, ________ must be prepared to work long hours.
- The plumbing crew did ________ best to repair the broken pipes before the next ice storm.
- If someone is rude to you, try giving ________ a smile in return.
- My family has ________ faults, but I still love them no matter what.
- The school of education plans to train ________ students to be literacy tutors.
- The commencement speaker said that each student has a responsibility toward ________.
- My mother’s singing group has ________ rehearsals on Thursday evenings.
- No one should suffer ________ pains alone.
- 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 Pronouns||Plural Pronouns|
|he, she, it||him, her, it||they||them|
The following sentences show pronouns as subjects:
- She loves the Blue Ridge Mountains in the fall.
- Every summer, they picked up litter from national parks.
The following sentences show pronouns as objects:
- Marie leaned over and kissed him.
- Jane moved it to the corner.
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. The following sentences show pronouns with compound subjects:
Incorrect: Me and Harriet visited the Grand Canyon last summer.
Correct: Harriet and I visited the Grand Canyon last summer.
Correct: Jenna accompanied Harriet and me on our trip.
Note that object pronouns are never used in the subject position. One way to remember this rule is to remove the other subject in a compound subject, leave only the pronoun, and see whether the sentence makes sense. For example, Me visited the Grand Canyon last summer sounds immediately incorrect.
Compound object pronouns are two or more pronouns joined by a conjunction or a preposition that function together as the object of the sentence.
Incorrect: I have a good feeling about Janice and I.
Correct: I have a good feeling about Janice and me.
It is correct to write Janice and me rather than me and Janice. Just remember it is more polite to refer to yourself last.
Writing at Work
In casual conversation, people sometimes mix up subject and object pronouns. For instance, you might say, “Me and Donnie went to a movie last night.” However, in a formal situation, using the correct subject or object pronoun will enhance your professional image.
Revise any sentences in which the subject and object pronouns are used incorrectly. Write a C for each sentence that is correct.
- Meera and me enjoy doing yoga together on Sundays.
- She and him have decided to sell their house.
- Between you and I, I do not think Jeffrey will win the election.
- Us and our friends have game night the first Thursday of every month.
- They and I met while on vacation in Mexico.
- Napping on the beach never gets boring for Alice and I.
- New Year’s Eve is not a good time for she and I to have a serious talk.
- You exercise much more often than me.
- I am going to the comedy club with Yolanda and she.
- 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.
Who won the marathon last Tuesday?
I wonder who came up with that terrible idea!
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.
Whom did Frank marry the third time? (direct object of verb)
From whom did you buy that old record player? (object of preposition)
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.
Which sentence sounds better? The first one, of course. So the trick is, if you can use her or him, you should use whom.
Complete the following sentences by adding who or whom. Copy the completed sentence onto your own sheet of paper.
- ________ hit the home run?
- I remember ________ won the Academy Award for Best Actor last year.
- To ________ is the letter addressed?
- I have no idea ________ left the iron on, but I am going to find out.
- ________ are you going to recommend for the internship?
- With ________ are you going to Hawaii?
- No one knew ________ the famous actor was.
- ________ in the office knows how to fix the copy machine?
- From ________ did you get the concert tickets?
- No one knew ________ ate the cake mom was saving.