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Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement


Pronoun
A pronoun is a substitute for a noun. It refers to a person, place, thing, feeling, or quality but does not refer to it by its name. The pronoun in the following sample sentence is bolded.

The critique of Plato's Republic was written from a contemporary point of view. It was an in-depth analysis of Plato's opinions about possible governmental forms.
Antecedent
An antecedent is the word, phrase, or clause to which a pronoun refers, understood by the context. The antecedent in the following sample sentence is bolded.

The critique of Plato's Republic was written from a contemporary point of view. It was an in-depth analysis of Plato's opinions about possible governmental forms.

While the pronouns I and you can be replaced by nouns, the context of a sentence does not always require the nouns to make clear to which persons I and you refer. However, the third person pronouns (he, she, it, they) almost always derive their meaning from their antecedents or the words for which they stand. Remember that pronouns in the third person communicate nothing unless the reader knows what they mean:

It is the best source available. What source is that?

Agreement
A pronoun must agree with its antecedent in three ways:


Grammar Conflicts

The following are some incorrect sentences. An explanation of the conflicts that some sentences may present in person, number, and gender and some possible solutions to the errors are given.

Person

Incorrect Sentence

If a person wants to succeed in corporate life, you have to know the rules of the game.

Explanation

Antecedent a person (third person)
Pronoun you (second person)
Conclusion no person agreement

Solution

Although the antecedent and the pronoun agree in number, they do not agree in person. This problem can be remedied in two ways.

Solution
Example
Change the second person singular, you, to a third person singular pronoun. If a person wants to succeed in corporate life, he or she has to know the rules of the game.
Change the third person singular antecedent, a person, to a second person singular antecedent. If you want to succeed in corporate life, you have to know the rules of the game.


Number
Incorrect Sentence

If anybody wants to succeed in corporate life, they have to know the rules of the game.

Explanation

Antecedent anybody (third person singular)
Pronoun they (third person plural)
Conclusion no number agreement

Solution

Although the antecedent and pronoun agree in person, they do not agree in number. This problem can be remedied in two ways.

Solution
Example
Make the antecedent plural. If people want to succeed in corporate life, they have to know the rules of the game.
Make the pronoun singular. If anybody wants to succeed in corporate life, he or she has to know the rules of the game.


Gender
Incorrect Sentence

If a person wants to succeed in corporate life, he has to know the rules of the game.

Explanation

Antecedent a person (third person neutral singular)
Pronoun he (third person masculine singular)
Conclusion no gender agreement

Solution

Even though there is person and number agreement between the antecedent, a person, and the pronoun, he, there is no gender agreement; in other words, the language appears to favor one sex over the other. This problem can be remedied in two ways.

Solution
Example
Replace the pronoun he with he or she. If a person wants to succeed in corporate life, he or she has to know the rules of the game.
Make the entire sentence plural. If people want to succeed in corporate life, they have to know the rules of the game.


© 1997, 1998, 1999 The Write Place

LEO: Literacy Education Online

The print handout was revised and then redesigned for the Web by Maggie Escalas for the Write Place, St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minnesota, and may be copied for educational purposes only. If you copy this document, please include our copyright notice and the name of the writer; if you revise it, please add your name to the list of writers.

Last update: 5 October 1999

URL: http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/grammar/pronante.html