What is Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement?
Let’s first start by reviewing what a pronoun and antecedent are.
A pronoun is a word that is used in place of a noun to refer back to a noun.
“Lucy performed her dance at the talent show.”
Her is the pronoun referring back to the noun Lucy.
An antecedent is the noun that the pronoun is referring back to, or the noun that the pronoun is taking the place of. The prefix “ante” means before, so the word antecedent just means that something is coming before something else. Like in our last example, “Lucy performed her dance at the talent show,” Lucy is the antecedent that the pronoun “her” is referring back to.
Now, the phrase pronoun-antecedent agreement refers, basically, to using the correct pronoun to take the place of the noun and the pronoun replacing the noun must agree with it in certain ways. The pronoun must agree with the antecedent in number, and in gender. But more specifically here is how that plays out:
1) Only a subject pronoun should be used to replace a subject noun.
A subject noun is the noun that does what the verb is saying it does.
For example: Matthew ran in the 300 meter race.
Matthew is the noun that is doing what the verb said, he “ran.”
Therefore, Matthew is a subject noun. And remember, to replace a subject noun, we must use a subject pronoun. There are two types of subject pronouns, singular subject pronouns and plural subject pronouns. In this case we have a singular subject noun so we must use a singular subject pronoun. Singular subject pronouns include: I, you, he, she, and it. Now, in our example sentence, “Matthew ran in the 300 meter race,” “Matthew” is a person and not a thing, so we would not use the pronoun ‘it.’ Remaining on the list, ‘he’ is the singular subject pronoun that makes the most sense. So, we could use the singular subject pronoun, ‘he’ to replace the singular subject noun Matthew, “He ran in the 300 meter race.”
2) Only an object pronoun should be used to replace an Object noun.
An object noun is a noun that takes upon the action of the verb; so, the verb is acting on this noun.
For example: The bus driver drove the kids to school every morning.
‘Kids’ is the noun that is taking upon the action “drove.” They are being driven, they are not driving; so, they are taking or receiving the action of the verb. Kids is a plural object noun, so we need to use a plural object pronoun to replace it. Plural object pronouns include: you, us, and them. The plural object pronoun that makes the most sense, in the context of this sentence, is “them.” So, then when we replace the the object noun ‘kids’ as well as the article adjective “the” with ‘them,’ we now have “The bus driver drove them to school every morning.”
3) Only a feminine pronoun should be used in place of a feminine noun. For example: Felicity went to the mall with her friend. Felicity is the feminine singular noun so it needs to be replaced with a feminine singular pronoun. So, “She went to the mall with her friend.”
4) Only a masculine pronoun should be used in place of a masculine noun. For example, let’s look back at the sentence we used in our first point: “Matthew ran in the 300 meter race.” We’ve already looked at this one, and replaced it with the correct pronoun. We replaced the Singular masculine subject noun with the singular masculine subject pronoun “he.” This is important, because Matthew, at least in this case, is referring to a male, so we need to use the correct pronoun.
5) Only a singular pronoun should be used in place of a singular noun. We’ve already looked at a couple examples of this, but here is another:
“The car could go up to two hundred miles per hour.”
Car is a singular noun so, it needs to be replaced with the singular pronoun “it.”
“It could go up to two hundred miles per hour.”
6) Only a plural pronoun should be used in place of a plural noun. For example: “Children can bring so much laughter to everyone around them.”
Children is the plural noun, so it needs to be be replaced with the plural pronoun “they.”
“They can bring so much laughter to everyone around them.”
Now, those are general rules that we need to be aware of, but here are specific pronoun-antecedent agreement rules:
1) When you have an antecedent that is an indefinite pronoun.
Anyone, anybody, someone, somebody, something, each, either, neither, everyone, everybody, everything, no one, and nobody are always singular indefinite pronouns.
An example of this in a sentence would be: “Anyone is welcome to play as long as he or she follows the rules.” Now, notice that it would be incorrect to use the pronoun “they” to refer back to anyone, because “they” is a plural pronoun, and remember only singular pronouns can refer back to singular nouns. That is why he or she is used to refer back to the singular indefinite pronoun “anyone.”
Several, both, few, and many are always plural indefinite pronouns. So, if one of these plural indefinite pronouns is an antecedent then you must use a plural pronoun to refer back to it.
Here is an example: “Only a few really understand what their purpose is.”
Few is the plural indefinite pronoun antecedent, and “their” is the plural pronoun referring back to the antecedent.
2) Anytime you have a compound subject or compound antecedent that is linked by and, then you use a plural referent. A referent is just the pronoun referring to the antecedent.
For example: “Madison and Lindsay did their chores.”
The noun Madison is singular by itself, and the noun Lindsay, by itself, is singular; but, because Madison and Lindsay are joined by “and” it is a compound subject and therefore plural. So that is why the plural referent “their” is used.
3) Anytime you have a compound subject that is linked by “or” or “nor”, then the referent pronoun should always agree with the antecedent that is closest in proximity to the pronoun.
That may sound confusing at first, but let’s look at some examples of what this means:
“Neither the coach nor the players did their best.” Since “players” is closest to the referent, the referent should be plural, because “players” is plural.
Look at this example:
“Neither the players nor the coach did his or her job.” “Coach” is closest to the referent, so the referent should be singular, because “coach” is singular.
4) Be aware of the meaning of a collective noun, it may be singular or plural. Collective nouns include words like: team, crowd, group, choir, flock, jury, committee, and so on.
Let’s look at an example of one of these nouns being used as both singular and plural:
“Mrs. Johnson’s class takes its final exam today.” Class in this sentence is singular, so the singular pronoun “its” is the referent.
Now, look at this example:
“Upon completing an exam, the class starts on their next assignment.” In this example class is a plural collective noun, so “their” is the plural pronoun used to refer back to it.
5) Titles of a single entity should have a singular pronoun referent. Titles of a single entity might include things like books, countries, an organizations, and so on.
For example: “The Silence of the Lambs left its readers stunned.” The Silence of the Lambs is singular therefore we use the singular possessive noun “its” as its referent.
Another example might be: “The United States just had its 241st year celebration of Independence.”
The United States is singular so the singular possessive pronoun “its” is used to refer back to it.
6) If the word “every” or “many a” comes right before a noun, or even a sequence of nouns then it takes a singular referent.
For example: “Every dog has its day.”
It may be counter intuitive to think of “every” as being singular, but such is the case.
7) When the phrase ‘a number of’ comes before a noun, then it is plural and should be followed by a plural referent. When the phrase “the number of” comes before a noun, then it is singular and should be followed by a singular referent.
Here are some examples:
“A number of people offered their assistance after the hurricane.”
“A number of” is plural so it takes on the plural referent “their.”
“The number of geese flew its way south for the winter.”
“The number of” is singular, and therefore takes on a singular referent “its.”
8) If there is a clause or a phrase in between the subject and the verb, then it does not alter the number of the antecedent. This sounds more confusing then it is.
Let’s take a look:
“The teddy bear with big eyes sits in its chair.” Even though the clause that is in between the subject “teddy bear” and the verb “sits” is plural, it does not alter the fact that teddy bear is singular; so its referent needs to be singular.
That was a lot of information at once, if you need to, be sure and look back for review.
I hope that this video over pronoun-antecedent agreement was more helpful than overwhelming.
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