Pronoun Agreement & Reference
Issues with pronoun agreement and pronoun references are common struggles for many beginning writers, but these problems are easy to correct once you realize the issue and just pay close attention to the pronouns you’re using in your writing.
Pronoun Agreement Errors
Pronoun agreement errors occur when the pronoun you are using to “stand in” for a noun does not agree with that noun in number, place, or gender.
Using the singular pronoun her does agree with Clara. It does not feel natural for a native speaker to say the following:
In the above sentence, Clara is the noun and her is the pronoun that agrees with Clara.
A common pronoun agreement error occurs when a writer uses a singular noun like student to represent students in general. Then, later, the writer may use they as a pronoun to replace student because the writer means students in general. This often occurs when people try to avoid that structure and use cumbersome word choices such as he/she, he or she, or (wo)men as ther is no gender-neutral singular pronoun in the English language. Using these variations is not preferred, and rewriting the sentence is a better option.
How to rewrite the sentence will depend on which style guide you are using. Both the MLA 8th edition and the APA 7th edition support using the singular they. On the other hand, The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) 17th edition does not support using the singular they in formal writing unless the person being discussed prefers they. CMOS recommends rewriting the sentence so that the noun and pronoun both agree.
For example, you may see something like this:
According to the most recent MLA and APA style guidelines, this is correct. However, according to CMOS, the sentence should be rewritten.
You could rewrite it like this:
Here is another example.
Rewritten with the singular they:
Rewritten with a plural subject and plural pronoun:
Rewritten without pronouns:
When in doubt, it is always safe to choose a plural subject so that the pronoun they flows more smoothly (and will be correct in number according to all style guides).
Pronoun Reference Errors
Pronoun reference errors can also be problems for beginning writers because it’s so easy to get in a hurry when you write and forget that you need to think about how clear your writing will be for your audience.
A common pronoun reference error occurs when students write about several different people or things and then use a pronoun later like she or it, but the audience has no idea what she or it refers to.
Here is a simple example to give you an idea about what a pronoun reference error looks like:
Here, the audience wouldn’t be sure which person the writer is referring to. Is it the mother or the aunt?
You want to be careful with your writing and make sure you’re clear and correct with your pronouns. Most of the time, slowing yourself down and working on some careful editing will reveal problems like these which can be easily corrected.