Pronoun-antecedent errors happen when a pronoun does not agree with its antecedent, which can create confusion in your writing.
- Pronouns are generic noun replacements such as him, her, it, and them.
- An antecedent is the noun that the pronoun replaces.
A sentence without pronouns:
The student spent the weekend writing the student’s paper so that the student would have enough time to proofread the paper on Monday.
The same sentence with pronouns:
The student spent the weekend writing her paper so that she would have enough time to proofread it on Monday.
You can see from the above examples that pronouns like her, she, and it are essential to avoid repetition.
Notice that it is clear what the antecedent is for each of the pronouns: her (the student), she (the student), it (the paper).
It is important to match pronouns to their antecedents in gender and in number. If, for example, your pronoun is “it,” it should not be referring back to the antecedent “Molly.” “Molly” is a person, so the better pronoun is “she.”
Here are some examples of pronouns that would fit with some antecedents:
- It = chair
- He= Jim
- She = Kellie
- They = Stanley and Susie
- They = the student
- Me = Michelle
While the pronouns they/their have historically been plural only, it is grammatically acceptable to use them as singular pronouns. They should always be used when referring to more than one person. They can also be used as a singular gender-neutral pronoun when referring to a person when the gender is unknown, or when you know that the person prefers they as their personal pronoun. For example:
The student was late turning in their assignment.
For help avoiding gender bias in your selection of pronouns, see Avoiding Bias.
It should be clear who or what the pronoun is standing in for. When you have a sentence in which the pronoun’s antecedent is not clear, your reader will likely be confused. Consider the following example:
Sarah and Shawna went to the store, but she could not find what she was looking for.
In this example, who is she? We do not know if it is Sarah or Shawna. Depending on the intended meaning, “she” needs to be changed to either “Sarah” or “Shawna” OR “she” needs to be changed to “they.”
Sarah and Shawna went to the store, but they could not find what they were looking for.
In this revision, we know that “they” refers to both Sarah and Shawna.
Choose the correct pronoun
The information below can help you choose the correct pronoun.
- First person singular pronouns [ talking about yourself] are I, me
- First person plural pronouns [ talking about yourself and someone else/other people] are we, us
- Second person singular pronoun [ talking to one other person] is you
- Second person plural pronoun [talking to several other people at once] is you (all)
- Third person singular pronouns [talking about one other person or thing] are he, she, it, his, her, they, their, this
- Third person plural pronouns [talking about several other people or things] are they, them, these