English 101 Help > Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement: Basics


DEFINITIONS
> A pronoun is a word that refers to a noun (takes the place of a noun).
> The antecedent of a pronoun is the noun to which it refers (the noun that it takes the place of, so that we do not need to repeat the noun).
In the sentence, "The man lost his hat," the pronoun is his; the antecedent of the pronoun is man.  If we did not have pronouns, we would have to write, "The man lost the man's hat."

BASIC RULE
A pronoun must agree with its antecedent in number and gender.  If the antecedent is singular, the pronoun must be singular; if the antecedent is plural, the pronoun must be plural.  If the antecedent is masculine, the pronoun must be masculine; if the antecedent is feminine, the pronoun must be feminine.  If the antecedent is a person who could be of either gender (e.g., teacher, doctor, student), we are obligated to use "he or she," "him or her," "his or her," as appropriate.  (We discuss "Avoiding Sexist Pronouns" later.)

EXAMPLES

1. Every passenger was required to show his or her ticket.
The antecedent of the pronoun is passenger (singular).  The singular verb was required makes this fact quite clear.  A passenger may be male or female; therefore, we are obligated to use "his or her."

2. Neither of the boys has done his homework.
This is a little tricky because we are tempted to think that the pronoun refers to the plural boys.  However, the sense is that neither (one) of the boys has done his homework, and the pronoun refers to neither (one), which is singular.  Therefore, we use the singular pronoun his.

3. A person who is terminally ill has the right to have his or her wishes regarding life-support respected.
The pronoun refers to the singular antecedent a person (who may be masculine or feminine); therefore, the pronoun must be his or her.

4. Nowadays, when a student graduates from college, he or she has a better chance of getting a good job than a person with only a high school diploma does.
The antecedent of the pronoun is student (singular, male or female); thus, the correct pronoun is he or she.

5. Neither India nor Pakistan is willing to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
The pronoun refers to each of the two countries separately (neither one nor the other).  The pronoun must therefore be the singular its.  (Once more, it's does not mean "belonging to it"; it's means "it is.")

6. Any student who wishes to be excused should raise his or her hand.
Do not say or write "their hands" when the antecedent is singular (student).

AVOIDING SEXIST PRONOUNS

Although it was once customary to use the pronouns he, him, and his to refer to an antecedent that could represent a person of either gender, it is now unacceptable in many circles (including business writing) to do that.  Therefore, when the antecedent refers to a singular person of unidentified gender (words such as person, student, manager, doctor, worker, boss, child, and many others) we are stuck with he or she, his or her, and him or her – which can become tiresome and awkward.  We may not use they, their, or them to refer to a person, a student, a manager, etc.  However, there are usually ways around he or she, his or her, and him or her that do not violate pronoun-antecedent agreement rules.

For example, #1 above could be rephrased in the plural:  All of the passengers were required to show their tickets.  Sentence #3 above permits a similar revision:  People who are terminally ill have the right to have their wishes regarding life support respected.  Other versions are also possible, such as:  The wishes of terminally ill people regarding life support should be respected.  (This method eliminates the pronoun altogether.)  Sentence #4 could be rephrased in the plural:  Nowadays, when students graduate from college, they have a better chance of getting good jobs than people with only a high school diploma do.  We can even improve the sentence (make it more concise) by eliminating the personal pronoun:  Nowadays, a student who graduates from college has a better chance of getting a good job than a person with only a high school diploma does.

More details about pronoun-antecedent agreement are located in the Handbook on pages 36-37.  Detailed rules (with examples) appear in Study Guide 4, an online version of which is available here.  For sample test questions and answers on pronoun-antecedent agreement, click this link.

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