Using Pronouns Correctly

Learning Objectives

  • Correctly match pronouns and antecedents

Antecedent Clarity

Two squares with arrows between them, insinuating that one square is being replaced by the other.

Figure 1. Always ensure that the identity of your antecedent is clear before replacing it with a pronoun.

We’ve already defined an antecedent as the noun (or phrase) that a pronoun is replacing. The phrase “antecedent clarity” simply means that it should be clear who or what the pronoun is referring to. In other words, readers should be able to understand the sentence the first time they read it—not the third, forth, or tenth. In this section we’ll examine some common sources of antecedent confusion and ways of addressing them.

Let’s take a look at our first sentence:

Rafael told Matt to stop eating his cereal.

When you first read this sentence, is it clear whether the cereal is Rafael’s or Matt’s? Is it clear when you read the sentence again? Not really, no. Since both Rafael and Matt are singular, third person, and masculine, it’s impossible to tell whose cereal is being eaten (at least from this sentence).

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How would you best revise the sentence above about Rafael and Matt? Type your ideas in the text frame below, and then look at the suggested revisions.

Were those revisions what you expected?

Let’s take a look at another example:

Katerina was really excited to try French cuisine during her semester abroad. They make all sorts of delicious things.

When you read this example, is it apparent who the pronoun they is referring to? You may guess that they is referring to the French—which is probably correct. However, this is not actually stated, since the first sentence refers to French cuisine (not the French), which means that there isn’t actually an antecedent. Since every pronoun needs an antecedent, the example needs to be revised to include one.

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How would you best revise the sentence above? Type your ideas in the text frame below, and then look at the suggested revisions.

As you write, keep these two things in mind:

  • Make sure your pronouns always have antecedents.
  • Make sure that it’s clear what their antecedents are.

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Antecedent Agreement

Two hands shaking.

Figure 2. When editing and reviewing your writing, always double check your antecedent agreement!

As you write, make sure that you are using the correct pronouns. When a pronoun matches the person and number of its antecedent, we say that it agrees with its antecedent. Let’s look at a couple of examples:

  • I hate it when Zacharias tells me what to do. He‘s so full of himself.
  • The Finnegans are shouting again. I swear you could hear them from across town!

In the first sentence, Zacharias is singular, third person, and masculine. The pronouns he and himself are also singular, third person, and masculine, so they agree. In the second sentence, the Finnegans is plural and third person. The pronoun them is also plural and third person.

When you choose a pronoun, you also need to make sure that you use the correct case. Remember we learned about three cases: subject, object, and possessive. The case of your pronoun should match its role in the sentence. For example, if your pronoun is doing an action, it should be a subject:

  • He runs every morning.
  • I hate it when she does this.

However, when something is being done to your pronoun, it should be an object:

  • Dogs have always hated me.
  • My boss wanted to talk to him.
  • Give her the phone and walk away.

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However, pronouns aren’t always this straightforward. Let’s take a look at some examples where things are a little more confusing.

Person and Number

Some of the trickiest agreements are with indefinite pronouns:

  • Every student should do his or her best on this assignment.
  • If nobody lost his or her scarf, then where did this come from?

As we learned earlier in this outcome, words like every and nobody are singular, and demand singular pronouns. Here are some of the words that fall into this category:

anybody anyone anything each either every
everybody everyone everything neither no one nobody
nothing one somebody someone something

Some of these may feel “more singular” than others, but they all are technically singular. Thus, using “he or she” is correct (while they is incorrect).

  • Anyone going on this hike should plan on being in the canyon for at least seven hours; he or she should prepare accordingly.
  • I know somebody has been throwing his or her trash away in my dumpster, and I want him or her to stop.

However, as you may have noticed, the phrase “he or she” (and its other forms) can often make your sentences clunky. When this happens, it may be best to revise your sentences to have plural antecedents. Because “he or she” is clunky, you’ll often see incorrect workarounds like this:

The way each individual speaks can tell us so much about him or her. It tells us what groups they associate themselves with, both ethnically and socially.

As you can see, in the first sentence, him or her agrees with the indefinite pronoun each. However, in the second sentence, the writer has shifted to the plural they, even though the writer is talking about the same group of people. When you write, make sure your agreement is correct and consistent.

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Here’s a paragraph that uses “he or she” liberally:

Every writer will experience writer’s block at some point in his or her career. He or she will suddenly be unable to move on in his or her work. A lot of people have written about writer’s block, presenting different strategies to “beat the block.” However, different methods work for different people. Each writer must find the solutions that work best for him or her.

How would you best revise this paragraph? Type your ideas in the text frame below, and then look at the suggested revisions.

Case

You and I versus You and Me

Some of the most common pronoun mistakes occur with the decision between “you and I” and “you and me.”  People will often say things like “You and me should go out for drinks.” Or—thinking back on the rule that it should be “you and I”—they will say “Susan assigned the task to both you and I.” However, both of these sentences are wrong. Remember that every time you use a pronoun you need to make sure that you’re using the correct case.

Let’s take a look at the first sentence: “You and me should go out for drinks.” Both pronouns are the subject of the sentence, so they should be in subject case: “You and I should go out for drinks.”

In the second sentence (“Susan assigned the task to both you and I”), both pronouns are the object of the sentence, so they should be in object case: “Susan assigned the task to both you and me.”

Singular They

One attribute of indefinite pronouns is that the person’s gender is unspecified—they are by definition indefinite. This ambiguity causes no trouble (and may actually be desirable) in statements such as “I hear someone coughing.” We don’t know (or need to know) the gender of the someone who is coughing. Consider the following statements, though, in which the indefinite pronoun someone in the first sentence is also the antecedent for the pronouns in the second sentence:

  • I hear someone coughing. I wish he or she would stop.

“He or she” is grammatically correct here because it takes into account that the “someone” could be either gender. However, this construction can sound clunky, especially in casual conversation. Historically, the awkwardness has been addressed by using the masculine pronoun as the generic singular pronoun:

  • To each his own.
  • Everyone should get himself a new car at least once.

(Alternatively, some opt to use the feminine pronoun, instead, in order to balance out the gender bias. E.g.: “To each her own.”) With the trend toward more gender-inclusive language, however, today you are probably more likely to hear the plural pronoun they used in this way—as a singular pronoun—especially in everyday spoken English. For example: Somebody accidentally left their wallet at the cash register. Can you make sure they get it back?

While the singular they offers the advantage of being gender-neutral—and it may soon become the accepted norm, as it was officially accepted by the APA in 2019—for now there are mixed opinions about it, and you may want to avoid it in your academic writing. When in doubt, consult your instructor’s preferred style guide.

Additionally, many individuals neither identify as male nor female, and they have begun to use they as a singular pronoun to refer to themselves. In these cases, it is grammatically correct to use they as a singular pronoun (per the Chicago Manual of Style, one of the predominant authorities on grammar and style).[1]

Try It

Review what you’ve learned about pronoun agreement and check your understanding in the following interactive.

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  1. The University of Chicago Press. "Grammar & Usage: Singular 'they'. Chicago Manual of Style, 2017, p. 241.