Online Writing Lab

Pronoun Agreement

A pronoun, one of the eight parts of speech, is used to replace a noun (click here for more on the parts of speech).  While it is okay to use pronouns in writing, writers need to be careful with their use since using them incorrectly can lead to several problems.

One common problem caused by incorrect pronoun use is improper pronoun agreement (also called pronoun/antecedent agreement).  This means that any and all pronouns used in a sentence must match the subject or object they are replacing.  In other words, if the subject is singular, any pronoun used in its place later in the sentence must also be singular.  Likewise, if a pronoun is plural, any pronoun used later in the sentence must also be plural. 

The following is an example of a sentence with a pronoun agreement error:

If a student wants to be successful and get good grades, they must attend class regularly and submit all of their homework on time. 

Notice how the subject of the above sentence is singular (“a student”); then, later in the sentence, this subject is replaced with two pronouns, both of which are plural (“they” and “their”).  This creates a pronoun agreement error and, more importantly, can cause confusion for the reader and detract from the writer’s point.

Fortunately, this type of error can be easily fixed, and it can even be fixed several different ways. 

Correction #1: Change the subject of the sentence to become plural so it matches the plural pronouns that are used later.  In this case, changing the sentence in this manner creates the following, grammatically correct sentence:

If students want to be successful and get good grades, they must attend class regularly and submit all of their homework on time.

Note:  It is important to be aware that when the subject of a sentence changes, the verb attached to that subject (the predicate) changes as well.  In this case, the verb changed from “want” to “wants.”  Remember, singular subjects need singular verbs; plural subjects need plural verbs.

Correction #2: Change the pronouns used later in the sentence so that they become singular to match the subject.  In this sentence, changing the pronouns creates the following, grammatically correct sentence:
If a student wants to be successful and get good grades, he or she must attend class regularly and submit all of his/her homework on time. 

Note:  It is not necessary to always use he/she as a singular pronoun, but both should be used the first time.  Using both avoids potential sexist language (in other words, assuming that all students are either male or female).  Once both are used the first time, one or the other can be used in the rest of the paragraph. 

Pronoun Agreement Exercise