Instructors: Below is an interactive exercise you may wish to share with your students. If you wish to download the documents for this exercise, there are links at the end of this post.
When a pronoun is used to refer to a noun, the noun is called an antecedent. Pronouns agree with antecedents when both are singular or plural.
Singular: The student turned in her paper.
Student, a singular antecedent, agrees with her, a singular pronoun.
Plural: The students turned in their papers.
Students, a plural antecedent, agrees with their, a plural pronoun.
To match antecedents to nouns, first determine which antecedent a pronoun refers to. Then make sure both pronoun and antecedent are singular or plural. In the case of collective nouns such as jury, class, or audience, consider the noun singular as long as the group acts as a unit.
Because today’s usage prefers gender-agnostic writing, good writers avoid using he when the antecedent could be either male or female. Likewise, using he/she as a singular pronoun is frowned upon because it’s a clunky construction. Sentences with faulty pronoun-antecedent agreement are best corrected by changing a singular antecedent to a plural. This means that in some cases, sentences work better when they are rewritten to avoid agreement problems.
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