Grammar Tips: Understanding Pronouns and Antecedents
  • 4-minute read
  • 4th October 2019

Grammar Tips: Understanding Pronouns and Antecedents

Pronouns can be picky things, so you don’t want to mix them with the wrong words. But, what are the rules behind this? And which pronouns go with which words? Well, with our guide to pronouns and antecedents, you can be confident of keeping your writing error free.

What Are Pronouns and Antecedents?

We use pronouns to replace another noun in a sentence, usually to prevent repetition. For example, we might say:

The dog played with its frisbee.

The word that a pronoun replaces is its antecedent. In the sentence above, for instance, we have the antecedent noun “dog” and the possessive pronoun “its,” which means we can refer to the dog twice without having to repeat “dog.” The alternative would be:

The dog played with the dog’s frisbee.

This sentence is less clear: Is it the same dog in both cases? Or is the first dog playing with another dog’s frisbee? In this case, then, the pronoun is very helpful for clarity, as well as helping us to avoid repetition.

Pronoun–Antecedent Agreement

We’ve discussed subject–verb agreement before on this blog, and pronoun–antecedent agreement is similar. Essentially, it means that singular pronouns should be used with singular nouns and plural pronouns should be used with plural nouns. If we ignore this rule and mix a plural noun with a singular pronoun, the sentence becomes ungrammatical:

The girls rehearsed for their recital. – Correct

The girls rehearsed for her recital. – Incorrect

The same is true if we combine a singular noun with a plural pronoun:

The statue has lost its nose. – Correct

The statue has lost their nose. – Incorrect

Collective nouns can be tricky on this count, as they can sometimes be singular or plural. But the key is consistency: If you treat a noun as singular, you should use a singular pronoun with it (and likewise for plurals).

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Compound Subjects and Pronouns

We form a compound subject by linking more than one person or thing with a conjunction. But this can cause problems with pronoun–antecedent agreement if you don’t know the rules. When a compound subject uses “and,” it should always be followed by a plural pronoun:

Meet Francis and MarieThey love traveling.

But when a compound subject is formed using “or” or “nor,” the pronoun should agree with the noun closest to it. For example, we could say:

Either the pie or the cookies will win due to their delicious taste.

Here, the plural noun “cookies” comes second, so we use the plural pronoun “their” after. If we were to switch the compound and subject around, though, we would say the following instead:

Either the cookies or the pie will win due to its delicious taste.

This sounds less natural, so it’s usually better to put the singular term first in a compound subject with “or,” “nor,” or another correlative conjunction.

Clarity Is Key!

If a reader isn’t sure what a pronoun refers to, he or she won’t be able to follow your writing. Therefore, you need to make sure antecedents have clear referents. An example sentence will help us explain what we mean here:

Bob waved to Tim as he wrote in his journal.

We can see here that Bob is waving to Tim (that much is clear). But because the pronoun “he” could refer to either Bob or Tim, we don’t know who is writing in the journal. This could be clarified by replacing the pronoun with the correct name. However, to avoid repetition, we could also rephrase the sentence and sidestep the problem:

As Bob wrote in his journal, he waved to Tim.

Here, by separating “Bob” and “Tim,” we clearly see that the pronoun refers to “Bob.” Hopefully, this has helped you understand how pronouns work. But if you’re ever unsure, our expert proofreaders are ready to help.

Comments (4)
Kristen Holan
24th August 2020 at 22:55
Hello, can you please address the instances in which pronouns can be antecedents for other pronouns? I'm thinking that they may be limited to possessive and reflexive pronouns, but I would like some more clarity on this subject, please.
    Proofed
    25th August 2020 at 10:11
    Hi, Kristen. You're correct that possessive and reflexive pronouns can take a pronoun as their antecedents. This can be a personal pronoun (e.g., "He is by himself") or an indefinite pronoun (e.g., "Someone left their umbrella here"). Is there anything in particular you'd like to see discussed in detail?
      Gary Jacobsen
      18th December 2020 at 14:45
      Should it be "Someone left his umbrella here"? Their is plural.
      Proofed
      19th December 2020 at 09:37
      Hi, Gary. "They" is also used as a gender-neutral, singular pronoun, so it is more appropriate when you do not know the gender of the person being discussed.

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