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Grad. Studies Home

Making Your Pronouns Agree with the Word(s) They Refer To

What is pronoun/noun agreement?

A pronoun must match the noun it stands for (its antecedent) in number and gender. 

That means, you must use a plural pronoun (like "they") when referring to a plural noun (like "my clients") and a singular pronoun (like "this" or "it") when referring to a singular noun (like "the problem"). 

English also requires a feminine (she), masculine (he) or neuter (it) pronoun depending on whether you are referring to feminine, masculine or neuter nouns.

What causes pronoun/noun disagreement?

The main cause of pronoun problems is using a plural pronoun-- often "they" or "their"-- to refer to a singular noun.  Remember:  The pronoun "they" is plural, referring to more than one person, so all forms made from "they" (= their / them / theirs) can be used only when referring to more than one person or thing.

Incorrect: The student who cares about their homework will start it early in the week.

Correct: 

Students who care about their homework will start it early in the week.

The student who cares about his or her homework will start it early in the week.
Incorrect:  Ask that client if they can switch appointment times till tomorrow.

Correct: 

Ask that client if he can switch appointment times till tomorrow. 

Ask that client if she can switch appointment times
till tomorrow. 


Ask that client if it is OK to switch appointment times tomorrow.

(Often the best way to correct a pronoun problem is to rewrite the sentence so that you don't use any pronouns.)
How can I check for pronoun/noun agreement?

Since "they" and "their" are the two most commonly misused pronouns, use the FIND command in your word processor to locate each they or their  in your paper, and then read the surrounding sentence carefully to find out what word this pronoun stands for and whether it agrees with that word in number.

How do I fix pronoun/noun disagreement?

The easiest way to fix noun/pronoun problems, and avoid all those awkward "his or her" and "he or she" references, is to make everything plural when possible.

Incorrect: The student who does their homework faithfully will get the good grades they deserve.

Grammatically correct but stylistically awkward: The student who does his or her homework faithfully will get the good grades he or she deserves.

Better: Students who do their homework faithfully will get the good grades they deserve.

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