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Pronoun Agreement

Recognize pronoun agreement when you find it.

Whenever you use a personal pronoun like she, it, or they, you first must establish its 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 the antecedent Gustavo. Pronouns like he will keep you from repeating Gustavo, Gustavo, Gustavo over and over again.

In addition, a 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 will not need to debate whether you need the singular or plural form. The spoken English that you have heard repeatedly will help you make the right pronoun choice when you write.

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

Each and every 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 equal 2 things, making a plural antecedent.

Read these examples:

The woodpecker and its 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 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.

Observe what happens:

The butterfly and bee drank their fill of nectar in the backyard garden.

Each butterfly and bee drank its fill of nectar in the backyard garden.

Every butterfly, bee, wasp, and hummingbird drank its fill of nectar in the backyard garden.

Correlative conjunctions confuse pronoun agreement.

Exercise caution when you use correlative conjunctions like either ... or, neither ... nor, and not only ... but also. Because correlative conjunctions present pairs, you will 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 (singular) and the handpicked flowers (plural). Use the closer of the two antecedents to determine if you need a singular or plural pronoun.

Singular indefinite pronouns cause problems.

Indefinite pronouns, a special class of words, will often be antecedents for personal pronouns. Some indefinite pronouns—despite the illogic—are singular and will often require a singular pronoun for agreement.

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

Consider these examples:

Anticipating a prank, neither of my brothers would take a glass of my homemade lemonade to quench their his thirst.

Aunt Ida will cook anything that you pick from the garden. Just wash them it so that you do not dirty her pristine counter!

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

Indefinite pronouns that refer to people—those that end in body or one, for example—are trickier. When you read, you will notice that writers have different strategies for handling these words.

In older publications, you will find writers exclusively using a masculine personal pronoun (he, him, his, or himself) to establish agreement with a singular indefinite pronoun (such as everyone):

When the lifeguard shouted, "Shark!" everyone returned to his spot on the sand.

Excluding half the human race was deemed unfair, so in the late twentieth century, writers tried to give masculine and feminine singular pronouns equal use, like this:

When the lifeguard shouted, "Shark!" everyone returned to his or her spot on the sand.

Constructions like he or she and him or her created reading experiences that were truly clunky. Plus, some individuals wanted other people to refer to them with plural pronouns like they. As a result, you can now find writers producing sentences like this:

When the lifeguard shouted, "Shark!" everyone returned to their spot on the sand.

Other contemporary writers believe that agreement still matters, so their solution is to avoid singular indefinite pronouns altogether, choosing plural nouns instead:

When the lifeguard shouted, "Shark!" the swimmers returned to their spots on the sand.

Not all indefinite pronouns are strictly singular.

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

Indefinite Pronouns That are 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.

Learn to maintain pronoun agreement with collective nouns.

Collective nouns name groups (which are things) composed of members (who are usually people).

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

Consider these changes:

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

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—without debate—a plural pronoun.

The team football players 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 a they, them, their, etc.

When Grandpa has dinner duty, the family members stretch their budgets by 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, Georgia.

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