- Correctly match pronouns and antecedents
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.
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.
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.
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.
Person and Number
Some of the trickiest pronoun agreement issues arise with indefinite pronouns, and this is an area where language usage has changed a lot recently:
- Every student should do his or her best on this assignment.
- If nobody lost his or her scarf, then where did this come from?
Words like every and nobody are singular. Traditionally, that meant those words would demand singular pronouns.
In the past: Every student should do his best on this assignment. (We used to always assume a student was male.)
A recent, more inclusive formulation: Every student should do his or her best on this assignment. (The goal here was to include women.)
Once considered incorrect: Every student should do their best on this assignment. (Since the sentence references one student, the plural pronoun “their” was considered incorrect.)
Now often but not always considered the preferred usage: Every student should do their best on this assignment. (Now, “their” is inclusive since it includes him/her/them.)
While the singular they offers the advantage of being gender-neutral—it may soon become the accepted norm and was officially accepted by the APA in 2019—there are mixed opinions about it. When in doubt, consult your instructor’s preferred style guide.
Additionally, many individuals neither identify as male nor female and have begun to use they as a singular pronoun. 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).
A simple and always correct formulation: Students should do their best on this assignment. (If we talk about students versus a student, the pronouns are a lot easier to deal with!)
Again, you should know that many of the words below are singular and “technically” require the singular pronoun (his or her).
- Technically correct: Anyone going on this hike should plan on being in the canyon for at least seven hours; he or she should prepare accordingly.
- Now acceptable: I know somebody has been throwing their trash away in my dumpster, and I want them to stop.
Remember, there are workarounds.
- Clunky, but correct: The way each individual speaks can tell us so much about him or her.
- The workaround: The way individuals speak can tell us so much about them.
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.
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 “Siobhan assigned the task to both you and I.” However, both of these sentences are wrong. There’s a pretty easy way to figure this out – without having to understand pronoun cases. Let’s take a look at some examples:
Incorrect: You and me should go out for drinks.
Incorrect: Me should go out for drinks. (remove the You and)
Correct: I should go out for drinks.
Correct: You and I should go out for drinks. (put You and me back in)
Incorrect: Siobhan assigned the task to both you and I.
Incorrect: Siobhan assigned the task to I. (remove both you and)
Correct: Siobhan assigned the task to me.
Correct: Siobhan assigned the task to both you and me. (put both you and back in)
Note: This rule is likely to change soon. President Obama often makes this particular error, saying things like “This is a very special moment to Michelle and I.” That’s incorrect. It should be Michelle and me!
The singular they offers the advantage of being gender-neutral, and it was officially accepted by the APA in 2019. 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).
Review what you’ve learned about pronoun agreement and check your understanding in the following interactive.
- The University of Chicago Press. "Grammar & Usage: Singular 'they'. Chicago Manual of Style, 2017, p. 241. ↵