A pronoun takes the place of a noun in a sentence, and the noun the pronoun replaces is the antecedent. Antecedents should be clear; pronouns must agree with antecedents in person, number, and gender. The following situations cause problems but can be corrected using the strategies shown.
Ambiguous or vague reference
Readers have difficulty when a direct reference cannot be drawn between the pronoun and antecedent.
The sophomores and juniors took the new test. They improved by 10%.
The sophomores and juniors took the new test. The juniors improved 10%.
The sophomores and juniors took the new test. Both classes improved 10%.
The patient’s height, weight, blood pressure, and social security number were recorded. This was stored on the confidential hospital server.
The patient’s height, weight, blood pressure, and social security number were recorded. This protected personal information was stored on the confidential hospital server.
During the rally, protesters threw eggs at the candidate, which angered supporters.
During the rally, protesters threw eggs at the candidate, an action which angered supporters.
Dr. Falk’s surgical procedure, which includes a new type of stent, is cutting-edge; it is currently being used in Sweden.
Dr. Falk’s cutting-edge surgical procedure is currently being used in Sweden, and he has developed and new type of stent for it.
Gender bias and agreement errors
Gender bias problems arise when the writer uses he, him, his, or himself for an antecedent that could be male or female. In order to not assume gender, use the singular they as your pronoun unless you are sure of the subjects chosen pronouns. Agreement errors also occur with they, their, and them when not used with the correct form on the verb (singular vs. plural).
A student reviews the catalog before he registers for classes.
A student reviews the catalog before they register for classes.
Students review the catalog before they register for classes.
Before registering for classes, students should review the catalog.
Who, which, and that
Most style guides reserve the relative pronoun who for people (or an animal with a name) and the pronouns which and that for animals and things.
James is the student that has written the most about global warming issues.
James is the student who has written the most about global warming issues.
Ellen works at the shelter with dogs, who are my favorite animals.
Ellen works at the shelter with dogs, which are my favorite animals.
Ellen took good care of Bowser, who is the neighbor’s Labrador puppy.
An indefinite pronoun represents a person or a thing, generally or indefinitely. Indefinite pronouns are usually singular (everyone, everybody, someone, somebody, anyone, anybody, nobody) though some are plural (all, both, many, most several, some). These pronouns must agree in number with their verbs, nouns, and other pronouns.
Everyone need to bring a three-page draft for peer review.
Everyone needs to bring a three-page draft for peer review.
All took pride in his work.
All took pride in their work.
Informal use of you and they
While speaking informally, writers sometimes use the pronouns you, it, and they in a manner that it is too relaxed for written communication.
Poll tax laws often intentionally made voting more difficult for black citizens. If you went to the polls and could not pay the tax, you could not vote.
Poll tax laws often intentionally made voting more difficult for black citizens. If black voters went to the polls and could not pay the tax, then they could not vote.
On the new SAT, they ask a lot of language questions.
The new SAT has many language questions.
Pronoun number and antecedent
Pronoun number is determined by antecedent; singular pronouns refer to singular nouns, plural to plural.
Following the storm, the agency worked hard to reunite dogs with its owners.
Following the storm, the agency worked hard to reunite dogs with their owners.
June and Jared practiced his routine.
June and Jared practiced their routine.
Some special situations create challenges.
Each shark and each dolphin were tracked by their radio transmitter.
Each shark and each dolphin were tracked by its radio transmitter.
Neither the house nor the garage remained on their foundation following the tornado.
Neither the house nor the garage remained on its foundation following the tornado.
Collective nouns (e.g., jury, team, flock) take a singular pronoun when members act as a unit and a plural pronoun when members act individually:
The committee decided to make public their meeting summaries.
The committee decided to make public its meeting summaries.
During summer months, the committee held virtual meetings and cast its votes online.
During summer months, the committee held virtual meetings and cast their votes online.
Bullock, Richard, and Francine Weinberg. The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Handbook. 2nd ed. New York: Norton,
Lunsford, Andrea A. The St. Martin’s Handbook. 8th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2015. Print.