Writing Topic: Pronoun Agreement

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PRONOUNS

 

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Pronoun AgreementAvoiding Gender Bias in Pronoun UseConfusing and Vague Pronouns

Pronoun Agreement

Pronouns are substitutes for nouns. A pronoun must agree in number and person with the noun (the person, place, or thing) to which it refers.

Professor Smith noted, in her lecture, that balloons float when they are inflated with helium.

Because Professor Smith is one person and a woman, we use the singular feminine pronoun her. Because the word balloons is plural, it requires the plural they or their.

 

Singular pronouns

I it anyone everybody either
me itself anything somebody neither
myself who anybody someone no one
you this everything something nobody
yourself one everyone each nothing

Plural pronouns

they these, those we
them yourselves us
themselves both ourselves

 

Avoiding Gender Bias in Pronoun Use

In the past, a common approach to pronoun use was to use a third-person pronoun – that is, writing he or him or, more recently, he or she, or him or her – to refer to a single person. For example:

A research candidate in our department must demonstrate his or her mastery of statistics. He or she will be expected to pass a test.

However, many people consider the use of binary gender designations (i.e., language that assumes a person is either male or female) not inclusive. Therefore, we recommend that if you are writing about a particular person, make an effort to learn the person’s gender, if possible, and use an appropriate pronoun. If you don’t know the person’s gender, or if you are not writing about a particular person and want to avoid assigning gender to the subject of your writing, try one of these options:

  1. Make the antecedent (the original noun) and its pronoun plural. For example:
    Research candidates in our department must demonstrate their mastery of statistics by passing a test.
  2. Rewrite the sentence to avoid using a pronoun altogether. For example:
    A passing mark on a statistics test is required of all research candidates.
  3. Use the singular Although this pronoun is, strictly speaking, grammatically incorrect because it uses a plural pronoun to refer to a singular noun, the singular they is gaining widespread acceptance as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. For example:
    A research candidate in our department must demonstrate their mastery of statistics by passing a test.

The singular they is already commonly used in speech and in informal writing; it is also accepted by a number of organizations – for example, the American Psychological Association and the Government of Canada – as a practical response to evolving social norms. We strongly recommend that students ask their professors about the use of the singular they, to clarify their purpose in using it and avoid losing marks over perceived grammatical errors.

This APA blog discusses gender and pronouns in more detail: http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/bias-free-language/

Another useful article on the same topic is located on the Government of Canada Translation Bureau website: http://www.btb.termiumplus.gc.ca/tpv2guides/guides/pep/index-eng.html?lang=eng&page=usage_6_gender_neutral_writing_pronoun_problem#

Confusing and Vague Use of Pronouns

Pronouns can cause confusion when the noun to which they refer is unclear. For example:

Smith compares artists Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, but she is quite unique.

The reader cannot be certain whether she refers to O’Keeffe or Kahlo. The sentence should be rewritten in this way:

Smith compares artists Georgia O’Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, but Kahlo is quite unique.

Another example:

We found errors in the completed experiments and they were noted.

It’s not clear whether they refers to the errors or experiments. The sentence should be rewritten in one of these ways:

In the experiments completed, we found and noted errors.

We noted errors in the completed experiments.

While confusing pronouns refer to a number of possible nouns in a sentence, vague pronouns are not linked to any specific noun. For example, the pronouns it or this can be vague, especially when referring to a whole group of words indicating an idea. For example:

During the War of 1812, many American leaders believed there would be little difficulty in taking over Canada. President Jefferson, for example, assumed it was simply a matter of harnessing the loyalty of U.S. immigrants living in Canada.

During the War of 1812, many American leaders believed there would be little difficulty in taking over Canada. President Jefferson, for example, assumed this was simply a matter of harnessing the loyalty of U.S. immigrants living in Canada.

The pronouns it and this do not replace a specific noun in the preceding sentences. Instead, it does not refer to a specific noun, and this attempts to replace the whole idea that American leaders believed taking over Canada would be easy. The vague use of it and this might be corrected in this way, respectively:

During the War of 1812, many American leaders believed there would be little difficulty in taking over Canada. President Jefferson assumed this conquest was simply a matter of harnessing the loyalty of U.S. immigrants living in Canada.

During the War of 1812, many American leaders believed there would be little difficulty in taking over Canada. President Jefferson, for example, assumed that such an appropriation was simply a matter of harnessing the loyalty of U.S. immigrants living in Canada.

A useful tip to remember is that this should rarely appear on its own; placing a noun after this (as in this idea or this event) will ensure that this refers to a specific noun that is easy for the reader to identify.

 

 

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