Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement | Examples & Tips
Pronoun-antecedent agreement means choosing a pronoun that matches its antecedent (the earlier noun or noun phrase it refers to) in terms of number, person, and gender. Agreement errors can cause confusion or just make your writing read poorly.
For example, the sentence “Jennifer is here, and she isn’t happy” is correct because the pronoun “she” is singular (Jennifer is one person), third-person (Jennifer is not the speaker and isn’t being directly addressed), and feminine (Jennifer is a woman).
The vast majority of common agreement errors relate to number (singular vs. plural). Examples of some errors and how they can be fixed are shown in the table below. The following sections explain various contexts where mistakes commonly occur.
|The box of pencils remained in their place.||The box of pencils remained in its place.|
|Each day will bring their own challenges.||Each day will bring its own challenges.|
|One should look out for themselves.||One should look out for oneself.|
Table of contents
Intervening phrase after the antecedent
A common cause of agreement errors is the occurrence of a phrase after the antecedent that causes confusion about whether it’s singular or plural. This is typically a prepositional phrase with “of” followed by a noun.
For example, in the sentence “The price of vegetables rose to their highest level in years,” the writer has mistakenly used the plural “their,” based on the phrase “of vegetables.” The real antecedent is the singular “price,” so the correct wording is “its highest level.”
To avoid this error, consider logically what the antecedent is in each case, rather than just assuming that it’s the most recent noun. In the following example, it’s clear that the olives, not the jar, are flavorful.
- The jar of olives had a lot of flavor to them.
- The jar of olives had a lot of flavor to it.
- The olives in the jar had a lot of flavor to them.
Indefinite pronoun as antecedent
Indefinite pronouns are words like “everyone,” “each,” and “little” that stand in for someone or something nonspecific. Some of these pronouns are always singular, others are always plural, and a few can be either singular or plural, depending on how they’re used.
There are some common points of confusion regarding these pronouns, which are explained in the table below.
|Indefinite pronouns starting with every- are singular.||Everything in the database had their own unique identifying code.||Everything in the database had its own unique identifying code.|
|Pronouns like each, either, and neither are singular.||Each of the boxes had something in them.||Each of the boxes had something in it.|
|Pronouns like both, few, and several are plural.||Both of them did a good job at the tasks he was assigned.||Both of them did a good job at the tasks they were assigned.|
|Pronouns like all, any, none, and some are singular or plural depending on whether they refer to countable or uncountable quantities.||If any of the water spilled on the ground, they were cleaned up quickly.
We don’t have any of those shoes left. It sold out yesterday.
|If any of the water spilled on the ground, it was cleaned up quickly.
We don’t have any of those shoes left. They sold out yesterday.
Antecedents joined by a conjunction
When there isn’t a single antecedent but a series of two or more joined by a conjunction, the rules vary depending on which conjunction is used.
Antecedents joined by “and”
When the antecedents are joined by and, the pronoun should always be plural. Don’t use a pronoun referring to only one of the antecedents or an individual pronoun for each of them; just use a plural pronoun (i.e., a form of “they”).
- Marcel and Gemma would like you to go and see her later.
- Marcel and Gemma would like you to go and see him and her later.
- Marcel and Gemma would like you to go and see them later.
Antecedents joined by “or” or “nor”
When the antecedents are joined by or or nor, the pronoun normally agrees with the antecedent closest to it. This sometimes results in awkward sentences that it’s better to rephrase.
For example, when one antecedent is plural and the other singular, it reads better to put the plural one last:
- Neither the windows nor the door were looking their best.
- Neither the windows nor the door was looking its best.
- Neither the door nor the windows were looking their best.
When the antecedents differ in gender, the sentence will read poorly unless you use the singular “they” or rephrase entirely:
- I don’t know if either Marcel or Gemma has received her gift.
- I don’t know if either Marcel or Gemma has received his or her gift.
- I don’t know if either Marcel or Gemma has received their gift.
- I don’t know if Marcel has received his gift, or Gemma hers.
“Every” and “Many a(n)”
Antecedents preceded by the determiners “every” or “many a(n)” are always singular.
- Many a house I visited had something that put me off them.
- Many a house I visited had something that put me off it.
This is true even when the antecedent consists of a series of nouns joined by “and.”
- Every desk, closet, and bookcase had their surfaces thoroughly dusted before the inspection.
- Every desk, closet, and bookcase had its surfaces thoroughly dusted before the inspection.
Note that this doesn’t apply to the use of “many” without “a” or “an”; used in this way, it creates a plural antecedent.
- Many houses I visited had faults that put me off them.
- Many of the houses I visited had faults that put me off them.
“A number of” vs. “the number of”
The number of is different. It literally refers to the specific number (quantity) of something. Because of this, it’s singular.
Collective nouns are words like “team” that refer to a group of people or things but are normally singular in terms of how they’re used. In most style guides for US English, it’s recommended to treat these nouns as singular, which means they are referred to with a singular pronoun.
If you do treat them as plural (which is more common in UK English), make sure that both the verb and the pronoun are plural. The essential thing is not to use a plural verb form with a singular pronoun, or vice versa.
- The board have its own questions for the president.
- The board has their own questions for the president.
- The board has its own questions for the president.
- The board have their own questions for the president.
Other singular antecedents that look plural
Besides collective nouns, there are many nouns and noun phrases in English that are plural in appearance but normally treated as singular in practice. Some common examples are:
- Titles of books, movies, songs, poems, etc. (e.g., Twelve Angry Men, “Good Times”)
- Names of fields of study (e.g., politics, physics)
When you refer back to these terms using a pronoun, it should therefore be a singular one.
The impersonal pronouns one and oneself are used to make generalizations that apply to all people. They are often used to make observations about human nature or recommendations about how people should behave. They are considered very formal.
People often make pronoun-antecedent agreement errors with “one,” beginning a sentence with “one” but later switching to a form of “they,” “he,” “she,” or “you.” Consistency is important; if you start with “one,” continue using a form of “one.” If this seems repetitive or overly formal, rephrase the sentence.
- One should always take time for themselves.
- One should always take time for yourself.
- One should always take time for oneself.
- People should always take time for themselves.
- You should always take time for yourself.
Agreement with the singular “they”
The singular “they” refers to the use of the traditionally plural pronouns and determiners they, them, their, theirs, and themselves in a singular sense. This is a way of referring to individuals in a gender-neutral way, and it’s widely recommended by modern style guides.
This has some implications for pronoun-antecedent agreement. For example, the sentence “Everyone has their own ideas about politics” would once have been seen as wrong, because “everyone” is singular. A phrasing like “his or her own ideas” would have been needed instead. Now, the use of “their” is seen as correct by most language authorities.
This simplifies the issue of agreement when referring to people, because there’s no need to worry about whether an indefinite pronoun is singular or plural; “they” can be used for both. But you still need to make a distinction between singular “it” and plural “they” when referring to things other than people.
Worksheet: Pronoun-antecedent agreement
You can test your understanding of pronoun-antecedent agreement using the worksheet below. Fill in the missing pronoun or determiner in each sentence, paying close attention to the antecedent.
Frequently asked questions
- What is pronoun-antecedent agreement?
For example, in the sentence “David came by; he was looking for you,” the personal pronoun “he” agrees with its antecedent “David” because it is:
- Singular: David is one person
- Third-person: David is not the person speaking or being spoken to
- Masculine: David is a man
An agreement error occurs when the pronoun doesn’t match the antecedent in one of these ways—most commonly in number. For example, “Some men came by; he was looking for you” doesn’t make sense because the singular “he” doesn’t match the plural “men.” The plural “they” is needed instead.
- What is the definition of a pronoun?
A pronoun is a word that stands in for a noun. Like nouns, pronouns refer to people, things, concepts, or places. Most sentences contain at least one noun or pronoun.
A pronoun can serve as the subject or object in a sentence, and it will usually refer back (or sometimes forward) to an antecedent—the noun that the pronoun stands in for. Pronouns are used to avoid the need to repeat the same nouns over and over.
- What is a personal pronoun?
Personal pronouns are words like “he,” “me,” and “yourselves” that refer to the person you’re addressing, to other people or things, or to yourself. Like other pronouns, they usually stand in for previously mentioned nouns (antecedents).
They are called “personal” not because they always refer to people (e.g., “it” doesn’t) but because they indicate grammatical person (first, second, or third person). Personal pronouns also change their forms based on number, gender, and grammatical role in a sentence.
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