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Problems with Pronouns
Like Subject-Verb agreement, pronoun-antecedent agreeement is about parts of a sentence fitting together so that the reader does not stumble over mixed messages. A common problem in writing is that the writer does not always take care to match the pronoun to the antecedent (an "antecedent" is a fancy word for "the thing to which the pronoun is supposed to refer). This is the problem in the following sentence: "Everyone has their share," where "their" (plural) is not matched in number with "Everyone" (singular). Simple to fix, right? However, the issue gets more complicated when you are dealing with collective nouns (the crowd, men, students, etc.) or with indefinite words (person, doctor, etc.), or two antecedents joined by "and" "or" or "nor." In addition, problems arise when the antecedent for a pronoun is unclear. These "pronoun reference" problems often arise between sentences when a general pronoun such as "that," "this," or "it" is used to refer to an idea in a previous sentence.
In this module you will learn the following
A pronoun refers to or stands in for a noun; the noun replaced by the pronoun is called the "antecedent" of the pronoun. There are many different types of pronouns used in many different situations:
subject pronouns are pronouns used as the subject of a sentence. These include, I, you, he, she, it, we, what, who, and they.
object pronouns are pronouns used as the target of a verb in a sentence, as in John gave me the book. Object pronouns include me, you him, her, it, us, whom, and them.
possessive pronouns are used to indicate a state of ownership by a subject referenced in the possessive pronoun. Possessive pronouns are mine, yours, ours, theirs, his, hers; and when possessive pronouns are used before a noun to establish ownership, they take an adjective case: my, your, our, their, his, her
demonstrative pronouns are used to refer to ideas or objects rather than people. Demonstrative pronouns include this, that, these, and those.
indefinite pronouns are used to refer to an indefinite person, place, or thing, as in "anyone," or "some." There are many different indefinite pronouns, but here are a few of the most common: one, anybody, everybody, each, either, sombody, anyone, both, many, several, all, none.
Note: sometimes "they" and "you" are used as indefinite pronouns. Be careful in academic writing with these pronouns, however, because they can create an unacceptable tone. For example,
relative pronouns are used to signal the beginning of a relative clause in the middle of a sentence. The relative pronoun stands in the for the noun antecedent, as in "The tan chihuahua is the dog that I want." Relative pronouns include which, who, whom, and that.
interrogative pronouns are used to begin questions. The interrogative pronouns are who, which, what, whom.
Pronoun Antecedent Agreement
Problems arise when the pronoun that is used in a sentence does not "agree" with its antecedent. "Agreement" means that the pronoun is consistent with the "person" "number" and "gender" of the antecedent.
agreement in person: the pronoun and antecedent have the same subject. For example, if the antecedent is "Johnny, Gabe and I," then the pronoun must be we or us, as opposed to you, or they. For example,
agreement in number: the pronoun and antecedent must both be plural, or both singular. Confusion often arises with indefinite pronouns. For example,
agreement in gender: the pronoun and antecedent, even when made to agree, should not promote a gender bias. Gender bias is often a problem in English because the English language has no gender-neutral, third-person, personal pronoun. "One," an indefinite pronoun, can be used, but this pronoun can sound a bit formal. The best course of action is to avoid pronouns altogether, or to use a plural pronoun:
For more on eliminating gender bias in writing, visit the module on shifts.Examples of Pronoun Antecedent Agreement:
Take a look at the following sentences showing agreement problems and their corrections:
Which or That?
Students sometimes have trouble deciding whether to use "which" or "that" as a relative pronoun. Use "that when the relative clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence (when the clause is "restrictive"); use "which" when the relative clause is just a detail. For example, "Would you please pick up the flowers that I ordered today?" and "I watched Grey's Anatomy last night, which I really should not have done since I had so much work to do."
Pronoun Reference Problems
Pronoun reference problems are very common in the work of developing writers. Experienced writers make pronoun reference mistakes, too, but they know to proofread their work to check for such mistakes. Pronoun reference mistakes usually occur between sentences, particularly when modifiers and clauses distance the antecedent from the pronoun, or when a sentence contains several nouns. Take a look at the following sentences with pronoun reference problems:
2. Pronoun Antecedent Agreement
3. Pronoun Reference Problems