Pronoun Errors

Make sure that pronouns and their antecedents agree.

Just as the subject of your sentence should agree with the verb, any pronoun you use must also agree with the noun or antecedent for which it stands. If you are using a pronoun to replace a singular noun, you should use a singular pronoun. However, if you are using a pronoun to replace a plural antecedent, you should use a plural pronoun. For example:

I waited for my two friends to finish basketball practice and went with them to the coffee shop.

Certain pronouns (called indefinite pronouns) are always singular.

Words like anyone, everyone, someone, anybody, everybody, anything, everything, either, neither, nothing, and no one are always singular, and their pronouns should be singular. For example:

Anyone who plans to attend the picnic should bring his own soft drink.

Ask for your instructor's advice on this type of sentence construction. Some instructors prefer the pronoun to be written as his or her to indicate that each person, regardless of their gender, is bringing a soft drink to the picnic. Some instructors consider the use of his or her awkward and allow anyone to be treated as plural (as in, "anyone should bring their own soft drink"). However, other instructors consider plural construction not acceptable in good writing.

Certain indefinite pronouns are always plural.

Few, many, both, and several are words that are always plural. Their pronouns should also be plural. For example:

Many people forgot to bring their umbrellas.

Certain indefinite pronouns (all, any, more, most, none, and some) can be singular or plural according to their context.

As the actors practiced their lines a final time before the play, most of them smiled and joked as though they felt relaxed about the upcoming performance.

"Most" and "they" have "actors" as their antecedent, which is plural.

Keeping a pronoun close to its antecedent helps to prevent confusion. However, if you think a pronoun is likely to confuse your reader, don't be afraid to use the noun again. Here's an example of a confusing pronoun reference:

George wanted to accompany his brother to driver's education training, but he was running late.

Who is running late? George or his brother? This sentence needs to be revised to change the confusing use of he. Here is one way that the sentence can be corrected:

George was running late, so he couldn't accompany his brother to driver's education training.

Use "this" to mean something that is close at hand in space or time, and "that" to refer to something that is farther away in space or time.

This afternoon the student council is meeting to discuss plans for the homecoming parade.

About that meeting last week, the faculty advisor said the discussion had been unfocused and a decision had not been reached about homecoming festivities.

Excessive use of "it" weakens writing, especially when "it" is used to introduce a sentence. For example:

It is very wasteful that so many students eat only part of their lunches and throw the rest away.

Or, in this example, can you tell what "it" stands for?

Watching the star of the basketball team shoot free throws made it seem easy.

Can you determine ways to make these sentences more effective? The solution is to rewrite!

When you have antecedents joined by a conjunction (and, or, or nor), don't forget to make the pronoun agree in number. For example:

If my grandmother and my aunt also come to my choral concert, they will bring my grandfather whom I haven't seen in two years.

Some pronouns (some, any, all, most, more, none) can be singular or plural depending upon the context in which they are used.

When do you use who, which, or that?

Who is usually used for people or for animals with names. Which and that are usually used for ideas, things, places, and unnamed animals, although they are sometimes also used for groups of people (for example, a committee). You can see both uses in this example:

A book that we read in our English class told the fictionalized story of Annie Oakley, who earned fame and fortune for her sharp-shooting abilities.

Check with your instructor about how to punctuate word groups that begin with who, which, or that.

Make sure you use possessive pronouns correctly.

When you are using possessive pronouns, you also need to ensure that there is agreement between the owner and the possessive pronoun that comes before the item, idea, or person that is possessed. For example:

My grandfather was fighting in World War II when his first son was born.

My grandparents raised their children in a small lumber town in Northern California.

In the first sentence, the singular pronoun "his" is used to show that the son belonged to the singular "grandfather." In the second sentence, "their" is used to show that the children belonged to the plural "grandparents."