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13.6 Pronouns: Making Pronouns and Antecedents Agree

A personal pronoun must agree with its antecedents.

The people on the boat will need their jackets.
The guide doesn't seem to want his coat, though.
In the first sentence above, the pronoun, their, is plural because its antecedent, people, is plural. In the second sentence, his is singular because its antecedent, guide, is singular. When the pronoun and antecedent match in this way, we say they "agree.?

Application 9
Pronoun-antecedent agreement is difficult when a singular antecedent offers no gender clues.
One of your roommates left her/his(?) lights on.
Can a small child explain what she/he(?) wants?
Give this free sample to the first customer who comes in, and ask him/her(?) to taste it.
There are three possible solutions to the problem.

1. Use both the masculine and the feminine pronouns with the word or between them. This invites the reader to share the uncertainty about the gender of the antecedent.

Give this free sample to the first customer who comes in, and ask him or her to taste it.
This solution sometimes creates a clumsy sentence.

2. Make your own decision about the gender of the person the pronoun refers to and choose a pronoun to match. (The old rule was to use the masculine forms whenever the sentence didn't give you any gender cues, but we are moving away from that now.) There is no simple answer about which form to choose.

Give this free sample to the first customer who comes in, and ask her to taste it.
or
Give this free sample to the first customer who comes in, and ask him to taste it.
This solution forces the writer to guess about the gender of the person the pronoun refers to.

3. Change the antecedent to a plural form so that you can use a plural pronoun to match it.

Give this free sample to the first customers who come in, and ask them to taste it.
This solution doesn't always work, because it forces the writer to change the meaning of the original sentence slightly.

Because each solution has its drawbacks, there is no single one you can use all the time. You need to become familiar with all three solutions, and choose among them in your writing.

Application 10      Application 11
Pronoun-antecedent agreement is difficult when the antecedent is a singular indefinite pronoun.
Nobody could have used his/her(?) charge card here.
Review the list of indefinite pronouns. When one of these words acts as the antecedent for a personal pronoun, the gender problem immediately arises. In addition, since indefinite pronouns don't refer to anyone in particular, we may hesitate to use a singular personal pronoun to refer to one of them, because singular is too specific. A plural pronoun looks particularly attractive when the antecedent is everyone or everybody. These words imply a large number of people, and yet these words (as well as any nouns preceded by the word every) are always singular. Any personal pronoun that refers to one of these words must be in the singular form:
Everybody in my classes can look up his or her grade on the test.
Standard English may be slowly changing on this issue, but the rule still stands, and you should respect it in college or public writing.

Application 12      Application 13

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