Pronoun and Antecedent Agreement
The noun or noun substitute that a pronoun refers to is called its antecedent. For example, in the sentence: Chelsey finished her presentation, "Chelsey" is the antecedent and "her" is the pronoun. Pronouns should agree in number, person, and gender with their antecedents. If the antecedent is singular, the pronoun should be singular. If the antecedent is plural, the pronoun should be plural.
The following pointers will help in the special situations that are most likely to cause problems.
Indefinite Pronouns as Antecedents
Indefinite pronouns are pronouns that do not refer to specific persons or things. When the following indefinite pronouns are used as antecedents, the pronouns that follow them should be singular and gender neutral unless the gender identity of the persons is known.
- each, each one, either, either one, neither
- anyone, anybody, anything, everyone, neither one
- someone, somebody, something, everybody
- none, no one, nobody, everything
Anyone who has finished their test may leave.
Everybody on the team did her best.
Neither ate his dinner.
Two Singular Antecedents
Two or more antecedents joined by and usually require a plural pronoun.
His car and boat were left in their usual places.
Chelsey, Omar, and Manny finished their joint presentation ten minutes early.
However, when the antecedents are preceded by each or every, the pronoun should be singular.
Every family and business must do its part to conserve energy.
(Every makes a singular pronoun necessary.)
Each college and university sent its budget request to the legislature.
(Each makes a singular pronoun necessary.)
Singular antecedents joined by or, either ... or, or neither ... nor require singular pronouns.
Has either Ajdin or Chinh finished his report?
Neither Durand nor Felicite has completed her preparations for the trip.
When a person’s gender is unidentified or nonbinary, singular antecedents require the singular they pronoun.
Has either Ajdin or Chinh finished their report?
Neither Durand nor Felicite has completed their preparations for the trip.
Singular and Plural Antecedents
If one singular and one plural antecedent are joined by or, either ... or, or neither ... nor, the pronoun agrees in number with the closer antecedent.
Either Hongzia or our parents will lend us their car.
(The pronoun their agrees with the plural antecedent “parents.”)
Either our parents or Hongzia will lend us her car.
(The pronoun her agrees with the singular antecedent “Hongzia.”)
Sometimes you must write the antecedents in one particular order to express the desired meaning.
Neither the superintendent nor the workers recognized their peril.
(The pronoun their agrees with the plural antecedent “workers.”)
Neither the workers nor the superintendent recognized her peril.
(The pronoun her agrees with the singular antecedent “superintendent.”)
Notice that the meaning is different in these sentences. In the first, the peril is to everyone. In the second, the peril is to the superintendent only, who uses she/her pronouns.
Collective Nouns as Antecedents
Collective nouns are singular in form but stand for a group of individuals or things. If a collective noun is regarded as a single unit, the pronoun that refers to it should be singular. If the collective noun is regarded as a group of individuals acting separately, then the pronoun should be plural.
The group presented its resolution.
(The group is acting as a unit.)
Yesterday the team signed their contracts for the coming season.
(The team is acting as a group of individuals.)
Singular "They" Usage
Use the singular they pronoun to refer to one representative person. Treat as singular “a person,” “an individual,” “the typical student,” or “an average American” that could be represented by multiple genders.
A person can never be too careful about their use of language.