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Pronoun Agreement

Recognize pronoun agreement when you see it.

Whenever you use a personal pronoun like she, it, or they, you first have to have an antecedent, the word that the pronoun is replacing.

Read this sentence:

Gustavo slowed to the speed limit when he saw the police cruiser in the rearview mirror.

The pronoun he replaces Gustavo. Pronouns like he will keep you from repeating Gustavo, Gustavo, Gustavo over and over again.

The pronoun must agree with its antecedent. To navigate this agreement successfully, you will need to know these singular and plural pronoun forms:

Singular Plural
he, she, it
him, her, it
his, her, hers, its
himself, herself, itself
their, theirs

The general rule for pronoun agreement is straightforward: A singular antecedent requires a singular pronoun; a plural antecedent needs a plural pronoun.

Read these examples:

The boy scratched his armpit.

The boys scratched their armpits.

In most cases, you won't need to debate whether you need the singular or plural form. The spoken English you have heard will help you make the right pronoun choice when you write.

English also, unfortunately, includes some special agreement situations. These will require your more careful attention.

Know how each and every can complicate pronoun agreement.

In math, 1 + 1 = 2. This rule applies to pronoun agreement as well. If you have 1 singular noun + 1 singular noun, then together they = 2 things, or a plural antecedent.

Read these examples:

The woodpecker and his mate tried their best to oust the squirrel who had stolen their nest.

Ronald wanted the attention of the cheerleader and the baton twirler, but he could not make them look his way.

The plural pronouns their and them are logical and ear-pleasing choices for woodpecker + mate and cheerleader + baton twirler, respectively.

Two words, however, have incredible sentence power. Each and every are singular and can strong-arm an otherwise plural antecedent to become singular as well.

Watch what happens:

The cowboy and his horse drank their fill at the desert oasis.

Each cowboy and horse drank his fill at the desert oasis.

Every cowboy, horse, pack mule, trail hand, and cook drank his fill at the desert oasis.

Each and every will also change the verbs that have to agree:

Whenever a diner walks in five minutes before closing, the cook and waitress sigh and roll their eyes.

Whenever a diner walks in five minutes before closing, every cook and waitress sighs and rolls her eyes.

Understand how correlative conjunctions can confuse pronoun agreement.

Exercise caution when you use correlative conjunctions like either ... or, neither ... nor, and not only ... but also. Because correlative conjunctions have two parts, you'll find two separate antecedents.

Read these examples:

Not only the handpicked flowers but also the homemade peanut butter pie will win Briana's heart with its thoughtfulness.

Not only the homemade peanut butter pie but also the handpicked flowers will win Briana's heart with their thoughtfulness.

Notice that you have two antecedents, the homemade peanut butter pie and the handpicked flowers. Use the closer of the two antecedents to determine if you need a singular or plural pronoun.

Recognize the problems that singular indefinite pronouns can cause concerning pronoun agreement.

Indefinite pronouns, a special class of words, will often be antecedents. Some indefinite pronouns—despite the illogic—are always singular:

Singular Indefinite Pronouns
each, either, neither
anybody, anyone, anything
everybody, everyone, everything
nobody, no one, nothing
somebody, someone, something

When people talk, logic wins, so you will hear plural pronouns with these words. But when you write, words like everyone, somebody, and nothing are singular and require a singular pronoun for agreement.

Everyone on the planet deserves clean water to quench their his thirst.

Can you believe it? Somebody left their her dog in a hot car with the windows rolled up!

Nothing is in their its place after the violent shaking from the earthquake.

Because this group of indefinite pronouns is singular, your choice of singular pronoun might strike some people as sexist. If, for example, you say,

Everybody should take his seat.

then the females present might take offense that you have excluded them. Or if you say,

No one needs her money because the food is free.

then the males might wonder why they have to pay.

One solution is to include both genders with constructions like he or she, him or her, his or hers, or him or herself.

The problem with using these inclusive constructions is that they are awkward. Although you do maintain pronoun agreement and avoid offending one gender, these constructions wreck the cadence of a good sentence.

Read a piece of professional writing—an essay, a movie or book review, an opinion piece in the newspaper—and you'll notice that real writers, those folks who engage audiences that number in the thousands or millions, will seldom, if ever, use a phrase like he or she.

Instead, professional writers might revise the sentence so that a pronoun is unnecessary. Sometimes, they make the antecedent plural so that they can use the natural-sounding they, them, or their. Or they might decide to alternate he and she in the piece so that both genders get mentioned.

Using he or she or him or her is technically correct. But it's also bad style. Avoid these constructions if you can.

Realize that not all indefinite pronouns are strictly singular.

Another group of indefinite pronouns are singular or plural, depending on the information from the prepositional phrase that follows.

Indefinite Pronouns That Can Be Singular or Plural
all, any, none*, more, most, some

Read these examples:

Some of this footwear smells because Tina wears it to the barn.

Some of these shoes smell because Tina wears them to the barn.

In the first sentence, footwear makes some singular, so it is the pronoun that agrees. In the second sentence, shoes, a plural noun, has all the power. Some becomes plural too, and them is the appropriate pronoun for agreement.

*Some people consider none a strictly singular word, a contraction of no one. We at Grammar Bytes! subscribe to the alternative belief that none is the opposite of all, and, like all, can be either singular or plural. Exercises here will reflect that belief.

Know how to handle pronoun agreement with collective nouns.

Collective nouns name groups [things] composed of members [usually people].

Here are examples:

Collective Nouns
army, audience, board, cabinet, class
committee, company, corporation, council
department, faculty, family, firm, group
jury, majority, minority, navy
public, school, senate, team, troupe

When the members of the group act in unison—everyone doing essentially the same thing at the same time—then the collective noun is singular and requires singular pronouns for agreement.

Read these examples:

The family is at the table, ready for its dinner, when Grandma prepares her delicious chicken pot pie.

The committee decided to spend its budget surplus on yo-yos for the officers.

The team agreed to host a car wash to finance its farthest away game.

When, however, the members of the group act as individuals—each person taking on separate responsibilities or actions—then the collective noun is plural and requires plural pronouns for agreement.

Look what happens:

When Grandpa begins boiling liver, the family quickly find other plans for their dinner.

At the car wash, the team took their places so that each vehicle got vacuumed, washed, and dried.

The committee disagree if they should offer Billie financial assistance after he suffered a concussion during an unfortunate yo-yo accident.

If deciding whether the collective noun is singular or plural makes your head hurt, remember that you have a couple of options.

First, you can substitute a regular plural noun for the collective noun. Then you can use a natural-sounding plural pronoun.

The team football players [or athletes, or teammates] earned 500 dollars for their trip.

Another option is to add the word members after a collective noun. Members is a plural antecedent and requires an ear-pleasing plural pronoun.

When Grandpa has dinner duty, the family members stretch their budgets eating dollar items from the value menu at Tito's Taco Palace.

The committee members wish that they had spent their surplus on soft teddy bears, not skull-crushing yo-yos.

Unlike collective nouns, named businesses, schools, and organizations are always singular.

Many people comprise a business, school, or organization. For the purposes of pronoun agreement, however, consider these three groups singular and use it, its, or itself to maintain agreement.

Read these examples:

To increase its profits, Tito's Taco Palace packs its burritos with cheap refried beans.

Weaver High School encourages its students to make leaner lunch choices, such as hot, steaming bowls of squid eyeball stew.

The Southeastern Association of Salt & Pepper Shaker Enthusiasts will hold its annual convention in Atlanta.

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