Need-to-know Grammar: Pronoun/Antecedent Agreement

May 12, 2006

An antecedent is the noun, compound noun, or pronoun to which a pronoun refers. The referent pronoun and its antecedent must agree in person, number, and gender.

To check for pronoun/antecedent agreement, first find the referent pronoun. Then figure out to which word the pronoun refers; this is the antecedent. Finally, confirm that the pronoun and antecedent are in agreement.

The student studied their vocabulary.

This is an obvious error in number agreement. The pronoun "their" is plural but the subject "student" is singular. Change the number of either the pronoun or the antecedent so that they are in agreement.

The students studied their vocabulary.

The student studied his vocabulary.

With practice, all errors in pronoun/antecedent agreement with be as simple as this to correct. There are just a few rules to remember.

+ When the antecedent is an indefinite pronoun, the referent pronoun must match it in number. Independent singular pronouns take singular referent pronouns; plural indefinite pronouns take plural referent pronouns.

Each of my friends passed their test.

This sentence is incorrect. The antecedent is not "friends" because this word is the object of a preposition. The antecedent is the subject, "each," which is a singular indefinite pronoun. Therefore, the pronoun that refers back to "each" must be singular.

Each of my friends passed his test.

This sentence is correct. The following sentence is also correct:

Several of my friends passed their test.

Since "several" is a plural indefinite pronoun, the referent pronoun must be plural.

Review the indefinite pronouns and their rules for both subject/verb agreement and pronoun/antecedent agreement.

+ The antecedent in an "either/or" or "neither/nor" couple is the word that is closer to the pronoun. Consider crossing out all the words from "either" to "or" (or "neither" to "nor") to make it easier to identify the antecedent.

Neither the students nor the teacher finished their work.

This sentence is incorrect. The antecedent is "teacher" because this word is closer to the pronoun than "students." The pronoun must be singular because the antecedent is singular.

Neither the students nor the teacher finished his work.

+ When the antecedent is a collective noun, look at the context of the sentence to determine the number of the referent pronoun.

The team won its game.

The team as a collective unit won the game, so the referent pronoun is singular.

The team put on their uniforms.

The individual members of the team put on individual uniforms, so the pronoun is plural.

The jury made its decision.

The jury as a collective unit made a decision, so the pronoun is singular.

The jury could not make up their minds.

The individual members of the jury could not make up their individual minds, so the pronoun is plural.

+ When the antecedent is composed of two or more nouns or pronouns connected by and, the referent pronoun is plural.

The cat and the dog ate their food.

  • Read examples of sentences with errors in pronoun/antecedent agreement at Celebrity Grammar and Celebrity Usage.
  • Take these interactive quizzes to practice identifying pronoun/antecedent agreement and working with pronouns in general: 1, 2, 3.
  • If you make any mistakes on the quizzes that you do not understand, copy the text into a comment. We will try to explain your error to you.
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4 Responses to “Need-to-know Grammar: Pronoun/Antecedent Agreement”

  1. elon Says:

    Would you say several of the students passed their test OR
    several of the students passed their tests

    How about this –

    students reach their maximum potential OR
    students reach their maximum potentials

    How do you know when to make the direct object plural with plural nouns?

  2. crazyhelltaxi Says:

    Thanks for this grammar guide, I found it very useful for studying on the SAT. I was wondering if you could recommend a guide for more practice. I heard the princeton review and tutorfox were the best.


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