Pronouns and antecedents

copyright   2002, 1979  Margaret L. Benner   All rights reserved.

In order to understand pronoun – antecedent agreement, you must first understand pronouns

A pronoun is a word used to stand for (or take the place of) a noun.

Below are the personal pronouns.  They are called “personal” because they usually refer to persons (except for it, which refers to things).

             Pronouns and Antecedents

Look at this sentence.

             Pronouns and Antecedents

There are two nouns in this sentence:  John and man.

Either of these nouns can be replaced by a pronoun.  If we replace John (the subject of the sentence) with a pronoun, we choose he, a subject pronoun.

Pronouns and Antecedents

If we replace man (the object in the sentence) with a pronoun, we choose him, an object pronoun.

Pronouns and Antecedents

  • For you to do:
  • Rewrite the following sentence in the space provided, first replacing the subject noun Laura with a subject pronoun; then replacing the object noun Amy with an object pronoun.
  • These sample sentences tell us some important things about pronouns:

        1.      A pronoun takes the place of a noun.

  1.         2.      The pronoun which replaces the noun must agree with it in these ways:
  2.                 a)     A subject pronoun must replace a subject noun.
  3.                          An object pronoun must replace an object noun.
  4.                 b)     A feminine pronoun must replace a feminine noun.
  5. A masculine pronoun must replace a masculine noun.
  6.                 c)     A singular pronoun must replace a singular noun.
  7. A plural pronoun must replace a plural noun.
  8. Thus, in the sentence

Pronouns and Antecedents

We must replace the singular, masculine subject noun, John, with the singular, masculine subject pronoun, He.  We can replace the singular, feminine object noun, woman, with singular, feminine object pronoun, her.                       

Here is another problem for you to solve.

Three words describe the properties of of the pronoun he.  Select the correct ones, then click on “submit” and check your answers.

A pronoun can also refer to an earlier noun or pronoun in the sentence.

Look at this sentence.

Pronouns and Antecedents          

We do not talk or write this way.  Automatically, we replace the noun Lincoln’s with a pronoun.  More naturally, we say

Pronouns and Antecedents

  • The pronoun his refers to President Lincoln.
  • In this sentence, the pronoun his is called the REFERENT because it “refers back.”
  • We call President Lincoln the ANTECEDENT because it comes before the pronoun that refers to it later.  (ante = “before”)

Pronoun Antecedents

Pronouns and AntecedentsWe’ve already defined an antecedent as the noun (or phrase) that a pronoun is replacing. The phrase “antecedent clarity” simply means that is should be clear who or what the pronoun is referring to. In other words, readers should be able to understand the sentence the first time they read it—not the third, forth, or tenth. In this page, we’ll look at some examples of common mistakes that can cause confusion, as well as ways to fix each sentence.

Let’s take a look at our first sentence:

Rafael told Matt to stop eating his cereal.

When you first read this sentence, is it clear if the cereal Rafael’s or Matt’s? Is it clear when you read the sentence again? Not really, no. Since both Rafael and Matt are singular, third person, and masculine, it’s impossible to tell whose cereal is being eaten (at least from this sentence).

How would you best revise this sentence? Type your ideas in the text frame below, and then look at the suggested revisions.

Were those revisions what you expected them to be?

Let’s take a look at another example:

Katerina was really excited to try French cuisine on her semester abroad in Europe. They make all sorts of delicious things.

When you read this example, is it apparent who the pronoun they is referring to? You may guess that they is referring to the French—which is probably correct. However, this is not actually stated, which means that there isn’t actually an antecedent. Since every pronoun needs an antecedent, the example needs to be revised to include one.

How would you best revise this sentence? Type your ideas in the text frame below, and then look at the suggested revisions.

As you write, keep these two things in mind:

  • Make sure your pronouns always have an antecedent.
  • Make sure that it is clear what their antecedents are.

Read the following passage, then re-write it using as many pronouns as possible, while still retaining clarity.

Marina and Marina’s twin sister Adriana often fought over small things. Marina frequently took Adriana’s clothes without asking and never returned them.

Adriana always ate the last piece of dessert, even if Mariana had saved it for Mariana.

However, Mariana always made sure Adriana knew about the sales at Adriana’s favorite stores, and Adriana baked Mariana’s favorite cookies at least once a month.

Antecedent Agreement

Pronouns and AntecedentsAs you write, make sure that you are using the correct pronouns. When a pronoun matches the person and number of its antecedent, we say that it agrees with it antecedent. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

  • I hate it when Zacharias tells me what to do. He‘s so full of himself.
  • The Finnegans are shouting again. I swear you could hear them from across town!

In the first sentence, Zacharias is singular, third person, and masculine. The pronouns he and himself are also singular, third person, and masculine, so they agree. In the second sentence, the Finnegans is plural and third person. The pronoun them is also plural and third person.

When you select your pronoun, you also need to ensure you use the correct case of pronoun. Remember we learned about three cases: subject, object, and possessive. The case of your pronoun should match its role in the sentence. For example, if your pronoun is doing an action, it should be a subject:

  • He runs every morning.
  • I hate it when she does this.
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However, when something is being done to your pronoun, it should be an object:

  • Birds have always hated me.
  • My boss wanted to talk to him.
  • Give her the phone and walk away.

Replace each bolded word with the correct pronoun:

  1. Hannah had always loved working with plants. Hannah’s garden was the envy of Hannah’s neighbors.
  2. People often lost patience with Colin.
  3. Justin was unsure how well Justin and Terry would together.
  4. Alicia and Katie made a formidable team. Alicia and Katie’s maneuvers always caught the opposing team off guard.

However, things aren’t always this straightforward. Let’s take a look at some examples where things are a little more confusing.

Person and Number

Some of the trickiest agreements are with indefinite pronouns:

  • Every student should do his or her best on this assignment.
  • If nobody lost his or her scarf, then where did this come from?

The Antecedent

Printer Fabulous!

Recognize an antecedent when you see one

The English language includes pronouns, such as she, it, or they. Pronouns are generic words that have little meaning on their own.

If you hear a friend say, “She is beautiful,” you know your friend is referring to a singular, feminine being or object, but with just the pronoun she, you don't know if the discussion concerns a woman, a cheetah, or an automobile.

You cannot picture the she until you know the antecedent, the word that this pronoun refers to or replaces.

Antecedents with Personal Pronouns

Often, an antecedent is the word, phrase, or clause that you replace with one of these third-person personal pronouns:

Third-Person Personal Pronouns
he, him, his, himselfshe, her, hers, herselfit, its, itselfthey, them, their, theirs, themselves

Here are some examples:

  • Adeline bit her lip.
  • Adeline = antecedent; her = personal pronoun.
  • Our carnivorous friends will not attend the picnic because they despise tofu hotdogs and black bean burgers.
  • Friends = antecedent; they = personal pronoun.
  • When Kris sprained his ankle, Coach Ames replaced him with Jasper, a much slower runner.
  • Kris = antecedent; him = personal pronoun.

Eating with your mouth closed has several benefits. Most importantly, it keeps people from turning away in disgust.

Eating with your mouth closed = phrase as antecedent; it = personal pronoun.

Karline hopes that her roommates remember to walk the new puppy. It will mean less urine to mop up when she gets home.

That her roommates remember to walk the new puppy = clause as antecedent; it = personal pronoun.

Antecedents with Demonstrative Pronouns

Other times, the antecedent might be the word, phrase, or clause that a demonstrative pronoun replaces.

Demonstrative Pronouns
this, that, these, those

Check out the examples below:

Jackson rides his skateboard to work. Now this is an eco-friendly mode of transportation!

Skateboard = antecedent; this = demonstrative pronoun.

You need to work on throwing large, unwieldy objects and catching heavy things. Those are the skills you must acquire to be a successful chainsaw juggler.

Throwing large, unwieldy objects, catching heavy things = phrases as antecedents; those = demonstrative pronoun.

Francine prays that the neighbors will keep their barking dog inside. That will allow her to get a good night's sleep.

That the neighbors will keep their barking dog inside = clause as antecedent; that [the second one] = demonstrative pronoun.

Antecedents with Relative Pronouns

And sometimes the antecedent is the point of reference for a relative pronoun.

Relative Pronouns
who, whom, whose, that, which

Read these examples:

  1. Principal Meyers, whose nose hair curled outside his nostrils, delivered the morning announcements.
  2. Principal Meyers = antecedent; whose = relative pronoun.
  3. The dish that contains the leftover squid eyeball stew cannot go in the microwave.
  4. Dish = antecedent; that = relative pronoun.
  5. Eating ice cream for dinner, which might not be nutritionally smart, is what Teresa wanted after her long day of waitressing.
  6. Eating ice cream for dinner = antecedent; which = relative pronoun.

Realize that some antecedents can make pronoun agreement tricky

Connecting Pronouns and Antecedents Clearly

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.

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.

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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.

  1. Original: The dogs and the cat ate all its food immediately.
  2. Revision: The dogs and the cat ate all their food immediately.
  3. Explanation: When joined by “and,” compound antecedents are plural and, therefore, take a plural pronoun.
  • 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.

  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.

Pronouns and Antecedents

Today we’re going to talk about pronouns that don't clearly match up with the nouns they are supposed to replace. Readers become unhappy when they have to guess what noun a writer is talking about, or readers may even chuckle if a pronoun seems to match up with the wrong noun. Later, you’ll see some sentences that are funny all because of little pronouns.

Quick Pronoun Review 

If you're a regular reader, you'll remember about subject and object pronouns. Pronouns take the place of nouns. For example, “I” and “we” are pronouns that appear in the subject position, as in “We wrote a hit song.” Think of pronouns as stuntmen or women filling in for nouns when the going gets tough—or nouns just get tired.

The pronouns “me,” “him,” “her,” “us,” “them,” and “it” must be in the object position, as in “The batter hit the ball to me.”

Other pronouns you might encounter are possessive pronouns such as “mine” and “hers” and indefinite pronouns such as “anyone” and “somebody.” There are even more kinds of pronouns. The world is full of them.  

What Is an Antecedent? 

Sometimes, a pronoun can stand on its own and the meaning is clear. When I say “I am visiting Aardvark later,” I don’t need to say my name first. “I” stands alone. And when I say, “Somebody left cookies in the lunchroom,” we don’t know who that somebody is, so we couldn’t use a noun even if we wanted to. 

But other times, for your meaning to be clear, you need your pronoun to be referring to someone or something you’ve already mentioned. And when you set it up that way, the noun that the pronoun refers to is called an antecedent.

That’s spelled with an  “a-n-t-e,” not an “a-n-t-i.” “Anti-” is a prefix meaning “against,” as in “antisocial.” “Ante” is a prefix for things that go before other things; for example, an antecedent goes before the pronoun, and “ante mortem” means “before death.”  

Pronouns and Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement

For definitions of the various kinds of pronouns and their roles in a sentence, click HERE.

Basic Principle: A pronoun usually refers to something earlier in the text (its antecedent) and must agree in number — singular/plural — with the thing to which it refers.

The indefinite pronouns anyone, anybody, everyone, everybody, someone, somebody, no one, and nobody are always singular.

This is sometimes perplexing to writers who feel that everyone and everybody (especially) are referring to more than one person.

The same is true of either and neither, which are always singular even though they seem to be referring to two things.

The need for pronoun-antecedent agreement can create gender problems. If one were to write, for instance, “A student must see his counselor before the end of the semester,” when there are female students about, nothing but grief will follow. One can pluralize, in this situation, to avoid the problem:

  • Students must see their counselor before the end of the semester. Or, one could say
  • A student must see his or her counselor. . . .

Too many his's and her's eventually become annoying, however, and the reader becomes more aware of the writer trying to be conscious of good form than he or she is of the matter at hand.

See also:  When to use—and not use—an em-dash

Trying to conform to the above rule (#2) can lead to a great deal of nonsense. It is widely regarded as being correct (or correct enough), at the beginning of the twenty-first century, to say

  • Somebody has left their bag on the floor.

but many people would object its being written that way because somebody is singular and their is plural. There is a great deal to be said, however, for using the word their as the gender-non-specific, singular pronoun.

In fact, it's been said already, and you can read all about it at the The University of Texas, where a web-site has been dedicated to the use of their in this way in the writings of Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, and other literary greats.

At least it's nice to know you're not alone! Another site dedicated to the “gender-free pronoun” is at Gender-Neutral Pronoun Frequently Asked Questions.

Remember that when we compound a pronoun with something else, we don't want to change its form. Following this rule carefully often creates something that “doesn't sound good.” You would write, “This money is for me,” so when someone else becomes involved, don't write, “This money is for Fred and I.” Try these:

  • This money is for him and me.
  • This arrangement is between Fred and him.

Those are both good sentences.

One of the most frequently asked questions about grammar is about choosing between the various forms of the pronoun who: who, whose, whom, whoever, whomever. The number (singular or plural) of the pronoun (and its accompanying verbs) is determined by what the pronoun refers to; it can refer to a singular person or a group of people:

  • The person who hit my car should have to pay to fix the damages.
  • The people who have been standing in line the longest should get in first.

It might be useful to compare the forms of who to the forms of the pronouns he and they. Their forms are similar:

Subject Form Possessive Form Object Form
Singular hewho hiswhose himwhom
Plural theywho theirwhose themwhom

To choose correctly among the forms of who, re-phrase the sentence so you choose between he and him. If you want him, write whom; if you want he, write who.

  • Who do you think is responsible? (Do you think he is responsible?)
  • Whom shall we ask to the party? (Shall we ask him to the party?)
  • Give the box to whomever you please. (Give the box to him.)
  • Give the box to whoever seems to want it most. (He seems to want it most. [And then the clause “whoever seems to want it most” is the object of the preposition “to.”])
  • Whoever shows up first will win the prize. (He shows up first.)

The number of people who use “whom” and “who” wrongly is appalling. The problem is a difficult one and it is complicated by the importance of tone, or taste. Take the common expression, “Whom are you, anyways?” That is of course, strictly speaking, correct — and yet how formal, how stilted! The usage to be preferred in ordinary speech and writing is “Who are you, anyways?” “Whom” should be used in the nominative case only when a note of dignity or austerity is desired. For example, if a writer is dealing with a meeting of, say, the British Cabinet, it would be better to have the Premier greet a new arrival, such as an under-secretary, with a “Whom are you, anyways?” rather than a “Who are you, anyways?” — always granted that the Premier is sincerely unaware of the man's identity. To address a person one knows by a “Whom are you?” is a mark either of incredible lapse of memory or inexcusable arrogance. “How are you?” is a much kindlier salutation.

James Thurber Ladies' and Gentlemen's Guide to Modern English Usage

The only problem most writers have with whose is confusing it with who's

Grammar Tips: Understanding Pronouns and Antecedents

Pronouns can be picky things, so you don’t want to mix them with the wrong words. But, what are the rules behind this? And which pronouns go with which words? Well, with our guide to pronouns and antecedents, you can be confident of keeping your writing error free.

What Are Pronouns and Antecedents?

We use pronouns to replace another noun in a sentence, usually to prevent repetition. For example, we might say:

The dog played with its frisbee.

The word that a pronoun replaces is its antecedent. In the sentence above, for instance, we have the antecedent noun “dog” and the possessive pronoun “its,” which means we can refer to the dog twice without having to repeat “dog.” The alternative would be:

The dog played with the dog’s frisbee.

This sentence is less clear: Is it the same dog in both cases? Or is the first dog playing with another dog’s frisbee? In this case, then, the pronoun is very helpful for clarity, as well as helping us to avoid repetition.

Pronoun–Antecedent Agreement

We’ve discussed subject–verb agreement before on this blog, and pronoun–antecedent agreement is similar. Essentially, it means that singular pronouns should be used with singular nouns and plural pronouns should be used with plural nouns. If we ignore this rule and mix a plural noun with a singular pronoun, the sentence becomes ungrammatical:

  • The girls rehearsed for their recital. – Correct
  • The girls rehearsed for her recital. – Incorrect
  • The same is true if we combine a singular noun with a plural pronoun:
  • The statue has lost its nose. – Correct
  • The statue has lost their nose. – Incorrect

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