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Pronoun Antecedent Agreement

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Teacher/Instructor Katie Aquino
Katie Aquino

Writing, Grammar, Literature, ACT Prep
Education: M.Ed.,Stanford University

Katie is an enthusiastic teacher who strives to make connections between literature and student’s every day lives.

When working with pronouns, it is important that they agree with their antecedents. Antecedents are person (1st, 2nd or 3rd), number (singular or plural) or gender (masculine or feminine). Pronoun and antecedent agreement is a skill commonly assessed on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT.

Now we're talking agreement. This time the agreement that we're talking about is the agreement between pronouns and antecedents. Just a quick review; a pronoun is a word in a sentence that takes the place of a noun. The antecedent of that pronoun is the noun that it actually replaces.

What we need to know about pronouns, and the way they agree with their antecedents, is they have to agree in three different ways. They have to agree in person. So they either have to be all first person, or all be second person, et cetera. They have to agree in number; they all have to be plural, or they all have to be singular. Then they need to also agree in gender; both need to be masculine or both need to be feminine.

There's a couple of tricky things as well that I want to go over before we can start looking at some examples.

The first one is a pronoun there. I really want to draw your attention to this pronoun, because it's the number one error that I see in pronoun usage. The thing to know about there, is it's always plural. There's no exceptions to that rule. So when you see this sentence; each student sat at their desk. This is something that I typically see in student writing. So let's take a look and see if that works.

We've got the pronoun there, and then we know the antecedent there. So what it's referring to is each student. Now we said 'their' is always plural, but 'each student' is talking about singular objects. So we don't have agreement here. We've got to flip this. The easiest way is to change that pronoun. So this should look like each student sat at his/her desk. 'His' and 'her' gender neutral, it makes it singular to match up with that antecedent.

The second trick that I want to talk to you about is, that and who. So what you need to know about 'that' is it's a relative pronoun. It's used to describe objects. Who is also a relative pronoun but it's used to describe people.

So you have this sentence; she is the teacher that assigns all the homework. So that relative pronoun, 'that', is referring back to the teacher. We've got a person. So instead of 'that' for a relative pronoun, we need to have 'who'. She is the teacher who assigns all the homework. So these are just a couple to keep your eye out for, because they do get a little tricky.

Let's take a look at some more example. This sentence; anyone can find their way home. So we talked about checking our agreement but first thing we need to do, is identify our pronoun that you've got underlined. Now we've got to figure out the antecedent. So who is 'their' referring to? In this sentence, 'their' is referring to anyone.

So 'anyone' is on the list of indefinite pronouns that takes a singular. So we need to make this their that we said was plural singular. Since anyone is gender neutral, again we're going to throw up his or her in order to make these both singular.

Next sentence; a doctor should speak kindly to his patients. Now this could work. I think this would be really easy to miss. However, this pronoun his right here is actually sitting there being a little bit sexist.
We've got the antecedent, which is the doctor. We've got his. If we look at the gender of our doctor, it's really gender neutral. So what we need to do, is make this gender neutral. The singular gender neutral is to add in his or her patients, so that they agree in gender.

The next sentence; if a person wants to be successful, you have to work hard. So let's look at our pronoun, you. 'You' is referring back to a person. A person, we're talking about somebody else, that's third person, but 'you' is second person. So we've got to make these match up.

We can change this to third person as well. If a person wants to be successful, we could change our verb then, he has to work hard. It will work there. We could also say he or she has to work hard.

Finally, we've got the students that struggled stayed for help. So our pronoun is that,that's a relative pronoun referring back to students. These is one of those tricky ones, students are people. So we've got to shift this, to who? The students who struggled stayed for help.

We walked through some basic ones. Let's looks at a couple more advanced ones, and see if you guys can get the hang of it. Neither of the boys wanted to give up his toy or their toy.

Now I know it sound natural to go and say their, but when you see this word 'neither'. Even though, it looks like you've got a plural subject here, neither lets us know that it's one of those two. We actually have to fill our pronoun in to match the neither which is the singular. It will be neither of the boys, wanted to give up his toy.

The last one let's take a look at. Some of the students were asking (his teacher, her teacher, their teacher) questions. So we've got to really boil down if this is our pronoun, what's it referring back to? It's not referring the students, it's referring to some of the students, which is one of those indefinite pronouns there. Remember, some is an indefinite pronoun that's plural, which means we need to make this plural as well. So it will be some of the students were asking their teacher questions.

So I know that pronoun antecedent agreement can be a little bit tricky, but if you remember these rules, and then check to make sure that your antecedents, and your pronouns are matching, in these three ways, you should be good to go.