- Recognize pronoun antecedents.
- Identify antecedents as singular or plural.
- Match antecedents and pronouns.
The antecedent is the noun (a person, place, or thing) that a pronoun represents in a sentence. The word antecedent means “a thing or event that existed before or logically precedes another.” In grammar, think of the antecedent as the noun that is represented by a pronoun in a sentence. Easy-peasy. Readers become confused when they see a pronoun and it’s not clear to what that pronoun refers. When you see a pronoun, you should be able to understand its meaning by looking at the rest of the sentence. Look at the following sentence:
- The Smiths picked apples for hours, and they put them in large boxes.
- The antecedent for “they” is “the Smiths.” The antecedent for “them” is “apples.”
Read each of the following sentences and note the antecedent for each pronoun.
- LaBeth fell on the floor and found out it was harder than she thought.
- it—floor; she—LaBeth
- The women chatted as they jogged along with their pets.
- they—the women; their—the women’s
As sentences become more complicated or whole paragraphs are involved, identifying pronoun antecedents might also become more complicated. As long as pronouns and antecedents are used properly, however, you should be able to find the antecedent for each pronoun. Read the following sentences and note the antecedent for each pronoun.
The ancient Mayans targeted December 12, 2012 as a momentous day that marks the end of a 5,126-year era. Today scholars speculate about what the Mayans expected to happen on that day and if they (the Mayans) saw it (December 12, 2012) as a time for celebration or fear. Some say that the end of an era would have been a cause for celebration. Others view it (December 12, 2012) as an impending ominous situation due to its (December 12, 2012’s) unknown nature. At any rate, you (the reader) can rest assured that many scholars will continue to speculate even as the date has passed.
Singular versus Plural Antecedents
When you are writing and using pronouns and antecedents, begin by identifying whether the antecedent is singular or plural. This will determine the pronoun you choose to use. As you can see by looking at the following table, making this determination is sometimes not as easy as it might seem.
Antecedent and Pronoun Matches
Antecedents and pronouns need to match in terms of number (singular or plural) and gender. Matching a pronoun with its antecedent, which is a word that the pronoun refers to, in terms of number (singular or plural) can be tricky, as evidenced in sentences like this one:
- Each student should do their own work.
Since student is singular, a singular pronoun must match with it. A correct, but rather clunky, version of the sentence is the following:
- Each student should do his or her own work.
To avoid pronoun and antecedent problems, you should take three steps:
- Identify the antecedent.
- Determine if the antecedent is singular or plural.
- Make sure the antecedent and pronoun match, preferably by making both plural if possible.
With reference to people, however, using they as a singular pronoun is a grammatical option when referring to a person whose gender identification is nonbinary, meaning they identify as neither a he nor a she. The Associated Press updated their style guide in 2017 to reflect this grammatical evolution
An article in The Washington Post quotes the Associated Press entry:
They, them, their In most cases, a plural pronoun should agree in number with the antecedent: The children love the books their uncle gave them. They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable. Clarity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers. We do not use other gender-neutral pronouns such as xe or ze…
In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person (as qtd. in Andrews).
Depending on your teacher and their grammatical preferences, you may or may not be marked down when using the singular they; however, the best advice for students is to be aware of why you are making your choices in grammar. And keep in mind that there are often ways to navigate around using they as a singular pronoun–by changing sentence structure or word choice.
The following sources also expand on the use of they and their as gender-neutral singular pronouns:
From Merriam Webster: Singular “They”
From Grammarly: What is the Singular They
For purposes of clarity, try to keep a pronoun relatively close to its antecedent. When the antecedent is not immediately clear, make a change such as rearranging the words, changing from singular to plural, or replacing the pronoun with a noun. Each of the following sentences has an antecedent/pronoun matching problem. Read each sentence and think about the problem. Then check below each example for a correction and an explanation.
Number (Singular or Plural)
Original: Each student should complete their registration for next semester by October 5.
Revision: Students should complete their registration for next semester by October 5.
Explanation: Often, as in this situation, the best solution is to switch the subject from singular to plural so you can avoid having to use “his or her.”
Original: Everyone should do what they think is best.
Revision: Everyone should do what he or she thinks is best.
All employees should do what they think is best.
Explanation: Indefinite pronouns are treated as singular in the English language even when they have an intended plural meaning. You have to either use a singular pronoun or revise the sentence to eliminate the indefinite pronoun as the antecedent.
Original: To compete in the holiday tournament, the team took their first airline flight as a group.
Revision: To compete in the holiday tournament, the team took its first airline flight as a group.
Explanation: Collective nouns are singular since they represent, for example, one team, one crowd, or one family. Although the pronoun “it” is used for nonhuman reference, it can also be used to reference a singular collective noun that involves humans.
Original: The dogs and the cat ate all its food immediately.
Revision: The dogs and the cat ate all their food immediately.
Explanation: When joined by “and,” compound antecedents are plural and, therefore, take a plural pronoun.
Original: Each member is responsible for his own dues and registration.
Revision: Members are responsible for their own dues and registration.
Explanation: Using “he,” “his,” or “him” as a universal singular pronoun is no longer acceptable. Either use both a masculine and a feminine pronoun as in the first revision or change the noun to plural and use a plural pronoun as in the second revision. Stylistically, pluralizing is preferable.
Andrews, Travis M. “The Singular, Gender-Neutral ‘They’ Added to the AP Stylebook. (Associated Press Stylebook).” The Washington Post, (28 Mar. 2017): Na, 2017.