Recognize an antecedent when you find one.
The English language includes pronouns, words such as she, it, or they. Pronouns are generic words that have little meaning on their own. If you hear a friend say, "Wow, she is beautiful," you know your friend is referring to a singular, feminine being or object, but with just the pronoun she, you do not know if the comment concerns a woman, a cheetah, an antique doll, or an automobile. You cannot picture the she until you know what this pronoun refers to.
Antecedents and Personal Pronouns
Third-Person Personal Pronouns he, him, his, himself
she, her, hers, herself
it, its, itself
they, them, their, theirs, themselves
Here are 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 and Demonstrative Pronouns
Demonstrative Pronouns this, that, these, those
Read the examples below:
Jackson rides his skateboard to work. Now this is an eco-friendly mode of transportation!
Skateboard = antecedent; this = demonstrative pronoun.
You must practice throwing unwieldy objects and catching heavy things. Those are the skills that will make you a successful chainsaw juggler.
Throwing 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 and Relative Pronouns
Sometimes the antecedent is the point of reference for a relative pronoun.
Relative Pronouns who, whom, whose, that, which
Read these examples:
Principal Meyers, whose nose hair curled outside his nostrils, delivered the morning announcements.
Principal Meyers = antecedent; whose = relative pronoun.
The dish that contains the leftover squid eyeball stew is not microwave safe.
Dish = antecedent; that = relative pronoun.
Eating ice cream for dinner, which might not be nutritionally smart, is what Teresa wanted after her long day of waitressing.
Eating ice cream for dinner = antecedent; which = relative pronoun.
Some antecedents can make pronoun agreement tricky.
Usually, maintaining agreement between antecedents and pronouns is easy. A singular antecedent requires a singular pronoun, like this:
The cat yowled its happiness for tuna.
Cat = singular antecedent; its = singular pronoun.
And a plural antecedent requires a plural pronoun, like this:
The cats yowled their happiness for tuna.
Cats = plural antecedent; their = plural pronoun.
Sometimes, however, establishing agreement can be tricky. Consider the situations below.
Each and Every
When you join two or more singular nouns with and, you create a plural antecedent:
The beetle and baby snake were thankful that they escaped the lawnmower blade.
Beetle + snake = plural antecedent; they = plural pronoun.
If, however, you include each or every in front, the antecedent becomes singular and will thus require a singular pronoun:
Each beetle and baby snake was thankful that it escaped the lawnmower blade.
Each + beetle + baby snake = singular antecedent; it = singular pronoun.
No matter how many nouns you include, if you have each or every in front, the antecedent is singular and needs a singular pronoun for agreement:
Each beetle, baby snake, worm, centipede, lizard, grasshopper, and toad was thankful that it escaped the lawnmower blade.
Each + beetle + baby snake + worm + centipede + lizard + grasshopper + toad = singular antecedent; it = singular pronoun.
When you use correlative conjunctions like either ... or, neither ... nor, and not only ... but also, only the second antecedent counts for agreement.
If, for example, the second antecedent is plural, then the pronoun that follows must be plural:
Not only Freddy the nose picker but also grateful shoppers replenished their supply of tissues during the drugstore sale.
But if the second antecedent is singular, then you need a singular pronoun to maintain agreement:
Not only grateful shoppers but also Freddy the nose picker replenished his supply of tissues during the drugstore sale.
Singular Indefinite Pronouns
Indefinite pronouns, a special class of words, will often be antecedents. 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
Read these examples:
Neither of Jasmine's boyfriends knows that he has competition.
Each of my sisters believes that her potato salad recipe is Dad’s favorite.
Everything in the serving bowls smells delicious. We hope it tastes good too!
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 Professor Duncan shouted, "Time is up!" everyone set down his pen and closed his exam book.
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 Professor Duncan shouted, "Time is up!" everyone set down his or her pen and closed his or her exam book.
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 Professor Duncan shouted, "Time is up!" everyone set down their pens and closed their exam books.
Other contemporary writers believe that agreement still matters, so their solution is to avoid singular indefinite pronouns altogether, choosing plural nouns instead:
When Professor Duncan shouted, "Time is up!" the students set down their pens and closed their exam books.
Class, family, jury, and team are examples of collective nouns. This type of noun names groups composed of two or more members. As we all know, sometimes a group acts in unison, as one unit, with every member doing the same thing at the same time. On other occasions, however, the members of the group have their own agendas and are pursuing individual goals.
When a collective noun is an antecedent, the behavior of its members determines whether you need a singular or plural pronoun.
If all the members are doing the same thing at the same time, then the collective noun is singular and requires a singular pronoun for agreement:
The Larsen family does its shopping every Saturday.
In the quiet auditorium, the class took its chemistry final.
Our team roared its displeasure when the opposition scored another touchdown.
If, however, the members of the collective noun are acting individually, you indicate that change by using a plural pronoun:
In the produce section, the Larsen family began arguing about the vegetables that they would prefer for dinner.
After the long and difficult exam, the class returned home, some to pack for winter break, some to study for their Thursday exams.
During the off season, the team spend their afternoons as they please, happy to escape the demands of the coaches.
Schools, Businesses, and Organizations
Many people might attend a school, work for a business, or volunteer at an organization, but when the name of that school, business, or organization is the antecedent, you must ignore—for the purpose of agreement—all the people involved and use a singular pronoun.
Consider these examples:
When Weaver High School won the regional football championship on a technicality, we sneaked onto campus the next evening and cut all four legs off its tiger mascot.
Save room for dessert, for Tito's Taco Palace offers its diners fried ice cream with habanero jelly.
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Robin L. Simmons
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