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.

Clara needs to pick up her book.

Using the singular pronoun her does agree with Clara. It does not feel natural for a native speaker to say the following:

Clara needs to pick up their book.

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 there 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:

If a student really thinks about how much they are paying for college, they are likely to be more focused in class.

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:

If students really think about how much they are likely to be more focused in class.

Here is another example.

When a chef adds a recipe to his or her Facebook page, he or she will often get many likes seemingly instantaneously.

Rewritten with the singular they:

When a chef adds a recipe to their Facebook page, they will often get many likes seemingly instantaneously.

Rewritten with a plural subject and plural pronoun:

When chefs add a recipe to their individual Facebook page, they will often get many likes seemingly instantaneously.

Rewritten without pronouns:

When a chef add a recipe to Facebook, likes appear seemingly instantaneously.

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:

My mother and my aunt told me I should consider going to college, and she was right.

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.

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