Writing Topic: Pronoun Agreement

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PronounsGender-Neutral PronounsConfusing and Vague Pronouns


Pronouns (she, hers, her, he, his, him, they, theirs, them, everyone, someone, one, all, etc.) are substitutes for nouns.


A pronoun should agree in number and person with the noun (i.e., the person, place, or thing) to which it refers. This grammatical rule remains the generally accepted practice in formal writing. For example, the sentence Each student should bring their books is considered faulty because Each student is singular, whereas the pronoun their is plural. In the sample sentence, their should be changed to his or her, or, even better, Each student should be changed to Students or All students so that the plural pronoun their can be used correctly.


Because we commonly use the pronoun they when referring to a singular person or organization in informal spoken English, it can be difficult to notice pronoun disagreement in written work. Careful proofreading is essential to ensure that each pronoun matches the noun to which it refers, and the following list of words that often contribute to pronoun disagreement is also helpful:


anybody, anyone, anything uses a singular pronoun (e.g., Anyone can bring his or her favourite recipe to the party.)
each uses a singular pronoun (e.g., Each seedling must be planted in its own pot.)
either, neither uses a singular pronoun (e.g., Either the cat or the dog did not eat its food because one bowl is still full.)
everybody, everyone, everything uses a singular pronoun (e.g., Everything has its designated place in the lab.)
nobody, no one, nothing uses a singular pronoun (e.g., No one should talk on his or her cell phone during the film.)
somebody, someone, something uses a singular pronoun (e.g., Somebody left his or her backpack in the classroom.)


Efforts to create agreement between a pronoun and a singular noun can sometimes lead to sexist language. For example, the traditional solution to the disagreement in the sentence Each student should bring their books was to write Each student should bring his books. However, the argument that the pronouns he, his, and him conventionally denote both male and female subjects has become socially unacceptable.


In most cases, the best method of achieving pronoun agreement and avoiding sexist language is to switch from singular to plural forms: for example, All students should bring their books applies equally well to students of either sex. Another recommended approach is to eliminate the pronoun by rewriting. For example, Style is a matter of the author expressing his personality might become Style is partly an expression of the author’s personality.


The occasional use of he or she (or she or he) is acceptable: for example, The average Canadian, never investing more than he or she can afford to lose, can hope to remain a step or two ahead of inflation. Another acceptable approach is the occasional use of one: for example, In Kingston, one can live on ten dollars a day provided one is willing to give up eating. These two forms, however, sound awkward when frequently repeated.


Other options, such as he/she or s/he, are less widely accepted than the preceding forms, perhaps because they look unattractive and are difficult or impossible to say. Still, he/she or his/her have a place in legal documents in which one of the alternatives is to be crossed out.


Pronouns can also cause confusion when the noun to which they refer is unclear. For example, in the sentence Maria and Helena sailed to Howe Island with her mother, the reader cannot be certain whether her refers to Maria or Helena. The sentence ought to be rewritten in this way: Maria and Helena sailed to Howe Island with Maria’s [or Helena’s] mother.


While confusing pronouns can refer to a number of nouns in a sentence, vague pronouns are not linked to any specific noun. For example, in the sentence Jacob was uncertain of the assignment’s requirements, and it caused him to procrastinate, the pronoun it does not replace a specific noun in the preceding clause. Instead, it replaces the whole idea that Jacob was uncertain of the assignment’s requirements. The vague use of it might be corrected in this way: Jacob was uncertain of the assignment’s requirements, and his doubt caused him to procrastinate. Alternately, the first part of the sentence could be rewritten so that it refers to a specific noun: Jacob felt some uncertainty about the assignment’s requirements, and it caused him to procrastinate. Now, it refers to the noun uncertainty rather than to the entire idea.


This, that, and which

This vagueness is particularly common when the words this, that, and which are used. Consider these sample sentences:

  • John procrastinated over finishing the assignment, and this led to a hefty late penalty.
  • Isabel travelled to Mexico, which made her want to learn Spanish.

As in the sentence about Jacob discussed above, the best solution is to ensure that this, which, and that refer to a specific noun that appears earlier in the sentence. Corrected versions of these two sentences might look like this:

  • John procrastinated over finishing the assignment, and this hesitation led to a hefty late penalty
  • Isabel’s travels in Mexico, which made her want to learn Spanish, were the highlight of her summer vacation.


A useful tip to remember is that this should rarely appear on its own; placing a noun after it (e.g., 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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