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15.6 Connecting Pronouns and Antecedents Clearly

Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize pronoun antecedents.
  2. Identify antecedents as singular or plural.
  3. Match antecedents and pronouns.

Matching a pronounA word that takes the place of a noun (e.g., he, her, they, it). with its antecedentA word, usually a noun, to which a pronoun refers. in terms of number (singular or plural) can be tricky, as evidenced in sentences like this one:

  • Each student should do their own work.

Since student is singular, a singular pronoun must match with it. A correct, but rather clunky, version of the sentence is the following:

  • Each student should do his or her own work.

To avoid pronoun and antecedent problems, you should take three steps:

  1. Identify the antecedent.
  2. Determine if the antecedent is singular or plural.
  3. Make sure the antecedent and pronoun match, preferably by making both plural if possible.

Antecedent Identification

The antecedent is the noun the pronoun represents in a sentence. When you see a pronoun, you should be able to understand its meaning by looking at the rest of the sentence. Look at the following sentence:

  • The Smiths picked apples for hours, and they put them in large boxes.

    The antecedent for “they” is “the Smiths.” The antecedent for “them” is “apples.”

Read each of the following sentences and note the antecedent for each pronoun.

  • LaBeth fell on the floor and found out it was harder than she thought.

    it—floor; she—LaBeth

  • The women chatted as they jogged along with their pets.

    they—the women; their—the women’s

  • When Abe lost his gloves, he backtracked looking for them.

    his—Abe’s; he—Abe; them—gloves

As sentences become more complicated or whole paragraphs are involved, identifying pronoun antecedents might also become more complicated. As long as pronouns and antecedents are used properly, however, you should be able to find the antecedent for each pronoun. Read the following sentences and note the antecedent for each pronoun.

The ancient Mayans targeted December 12, 2012, as a momentous day that marks the end of a 5,126-year era. Today scholars speculate about what the Mayans expected to happen on that day and if they (the Mayans) saw it (December 12, 2012) as a time for celebration or fear. Some say that the end of an era would have been a cause for celebration. Others view it (December 12, 2012) as an impending ominous situation due to its (December 12, 2012’s) unknown nature. At any rate, you (the reader) can rest assured that many scholars will be paying attention as the upcoming date draws near.

Singular versus Plural Antecedents

When you are writing and using pronouns and antecedents, begin by identifying whether the antecedent is singular or plural. As you can see by looking at the following table, making this determination is sometimes not as easy as it might seem.

Antecedent Singular or Plural? Explanation
dog Singular Common singular nouns function as singular antecedents.
singers Plural Common plural nouns function as plural antecedents.
everybody Singular Indefinite pronouns sometimes function as antecedents. Since they refer to nonspecific things or people, their number can be ambiguous. To solve this problem, indefinite pronouns are treated as singular. Other indefinite pronouns include anyone, each, everyone, someone, and something.
team Singular Words that stand for one group are singular even though the group includes plural members.
team members Plural By very definition, the members in a group number more than one, so the term is plural.
coat and hat Plural When two or more nouns are joined by “and,” they create a plural entity.
coat or hat Singular When two or more nouns are joined by “or,” the singular or plural determination of such an antecedent is based on the last-mentioned noun. In this case, “hat” is mentioned last and is singular. So the antecedent is singular.
coat or hats Plural Since the last-mentioned noun in this set is plural, as an antecedent this set would be plural.
coats or hat Singular Since the last-mentioned noun in this set is singular, as an antecedent this set would be singular, even though the set includes a plural noun. (Note: as a matter of style, try to avoid this arrangement by using the “singular or plural” sequence for your antecedents.)

Antecedent and Pronoun Matches

Antecedents and pronouns need to match in terms of number (singular or plural) and gender. For purposes of clarity, try to keep a pronoun relatively close to its antecedent. When the antecedent is not immediately clear, make a change such as rearranging the words, changing from singular to plural, or replacing the pronoun with a noun. Each of the following sentences has an antecedent/pronoun matching problem. Read each sentence and think about the problem. Then check below each example for a correction and an explanation.

Number (Singular or Plural)

Original: The singer kept a bottle of water under their stool.

Revision: Angela, the singer, kept a bottle of water under her stool.

Explanation: Since “singer” is singular, the pronoun must be singular. In this situation, to say “his or her” sounds odd, so the best choice would be to revise the sentence to clarify the gender of the singer.

Original: Each student should complete their registration for next semester by October 5.

Revision: Students should complete their registration for next semester by October 5.

Explanation: Often, as in this situation, the best solution is to switch the subject from singular to plural so you can avoid having to use “his or her.”

Original: Everyone should do what they think is best.

Revision: Everyone should do what he or she thinks is best.

OR

All employees should do what they think is best.

Explanation: Indefinite pronouns are treated as singular in the English language even when they have an intended plural meaning. You have to either use a singular pronoun or revise the sentence to eliminate the indefinite pronoun as the antecedent.

Original: To compete in the holiday tournament, the team took their first airline flight as a group.

Revision: To compete in the holiday tournament, the team took its first airline flight as a group.

Explanation: Collective nouns are singular since they represent, for example, one team, one crowd, or one family. Although the pronoun “it” is used for nonhuman reference, it can also be used to reference a singular collective noun that involves humans.

Original: Neither Cathy nor the Petersons wanted to give up her place in line.

Revision: Neither Cathy nor the Petersons wanted to give up their place in line.

Explanation: In situations involving “or” or “nor,” the antecedent must match the noun closest to the pronoun, which in this case is Petersons. Since Petersons is plural, the pronoun must be plural.

Original: The dogs and the cat ate all its food immediately.

Revision: The dogs and the cat ate all their food immediately.

Explanation: When joined by “and,” compound antecedents are plural and, therefore, take a plural pronoun.

Gender

Original: Each member is responsible for his own dues and registration.

Revision: Each member is responsible for his or her own dues and registration.

OR

Members are responsible for their own dues and registration.

Explanation: Using “he,” “his,” or “him” as a universal singular pronoun is no longer acceptable. Either use both a masculine and a feminine pronoun as in the first revision or change the noun to plural and use a plural pronoun as in the second revision. Stylistically, pluralizing is preferable. See Chapter 16 "Sentence Style" for more on how to avoid sexist language.

Key Takeaways

  • Match pronouns and antecedents by number (singular or plural) and gender.
  • Collective nouns and indefinite pronouns are both considered singular even when they appear to refer to multiple members or components.
  • Turning a singular subject into a plural subject is often the best way to handle a number problem between a subject and a pronoun.

Exercises

  1. Paying attention to the world around you, find at least five examples of pronoun/antecedent errors. Show the error and explain why it is a problem.
  2. Use each of these pronouns in a sentence with an antecedent: their, they, he, her, and it.
  3. Rewrite the following sentences to eliminate the pronoun/antecedent agreement problems:

    1. Ask any teacher and they will tell you that their students aren’t thinking of anything but spring break.
    2. I don’t know when this letter or the five letters I received last week were written since there is no date on it.
    3. Everyone should look at his own form and make sure they are completed correctly.