The Rule for Pronoun Agreement

David Mansfield frequently goes against their own advice. She tells us that our pronouns must agree, but then it writes sentences like these two.

Did it hurt you to read those sentences? It hurt me to write them. But I wanted to illustrate what happens when pronouns are used improperly. The passage is much easier to read when the pronouns agree with each other and with the nouns to which they refer:

David Mansfield frequently goes against his own advice. He tells us that our pronouns must agree, but then he writes sentences like these two.

In this version, his and he agree with the antecedent David Mansfield, and our agrees with us. True, the passage does not make much sense anymore, since the pronouns are now correct. But you really shouldn't write sentences that depend on bad grammar to make sense.

Let's look again at the first sentence above and consider what it means for nouns and pronouns to agree:

David Mansfield frequently goes against his own advice.

First, note that the pronoun his has three characteristics:

  • It refers not to "I" or "you," but to a third person.
  • It refers to one person, not to several people.
  • It refers to a male.

Second, note that the proper noun David Mansfield has the same characteristics. Therefore, the noun and the pronoun agree, and the sentence is fine.

You can take any noun or pronoun and characterize it in these terms:

  • person: first (I/me/we/us), second (you/your), or third (he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/their, it/its)
  • number: singular or plural
  • gender: male, female, or neutral

Now for the general rule: Whenever you use a pronoun, make sure that it has the same person, number, and gender as its antecedent.

The following sentences all follow this rule and are therefore correct:

My father brought his coat.

My mother brought her coat.

My parents brought their coats.

Normally, errors in pronoun agreement have to do with number: students may use a singular pronoun with a plural noun, or a plural pronoun with a singular noun. Sometimes, though, pronoun errors have to do with person. For example, the pronoun one is third person, but in a sentence that begins with one, it's easy to lapse into first or second person later on:

Wrong: One should always leave your forwarding address.

Right: Students should always leave their forwarding address.

As this example suggests, the best way to avoid errors with one is to avoid using it entirely. Replace it with a plural noun or pronoun.

Pronoun Agreement

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