Instructional Systems
Traditional English Grammar

Chapter Three: Agreement, Reference, and Case




A pronoun should agree with its antecedent in person, number, and gender. Person and number were discussed in the section on subject-verb agreement, and many of the situations that apply to subjects and verbs also apply to pronouns and antecedents.



 In order for the meaning of a pronoun to be clear, it must have the same person, number, and gender as the noun or noun equivalent for which it stands. This noun (or noun equivalent) is called the antecedent (L. ante, "before"; cedere, "to go"). The antecedent's relationship to the pronoun must be absolutely clear, or the reader will be confused.

While they must agree in person, number, and gender, pronouns do not necessarily agree with their antecedents in case (subjective, objective, possessive). If they do agree, it is only through coincidence. More will be said about pronoun case in a later section of this chapter.



English, generally speaking, uses natural gender distinctions for nouns and pronouns-that is, inherently male beings (steer, buck, man, etc.) are referred to as masculine and require a masculine pronoun (he, him, his, etc.); inherently female beings (cow, doe, woman, etc.) are feminine and require feminine pronouns (she, her, hers, etc.); and inherently neutral things refer to neither sex and require a neuter pronoun (it, they, them, etc.)

Gender agreement is seldom a problem with most pronoun/antecedent relationships when the antecedent is a noun because most of us have enough experience with the language to know when an object or being is naturally or traditionally assigned to one sex or another grammatically.



Traditionally, ships and even passenger trains have been assigned feminine names and given feminine pronouns. (For example, "She's mighty tall and handsome." is a line from "The Wabash Cannonball" describing that train.)


Common Pronoun-Antecedent Problems: (Marking Symbol PA)

Here are some frequently encountered situations that cause pronoun-antecedent problems.


1. Mixed Gender:


One trouble spot with pronoun-antecedent gender agreement occurs with the use of an indefinite pronoun as a subject when it refers to mixed sexes. Consider these examples:


MALE: Everyone in the Boy Scouts brought his flashlight.
FEMALE: Everyone in the Campfire Girls brought her flashlight.
 MIXED: Everyone in the Sierra Club brought his flashlight.


His and her in these examples agree in person, number, and gender with everyone. The prepositional phrase tells the gender of the indefinite pronoun.

Granted, some of the constructions in this category sound awkward or even ludicrous at times. ("Each of the students returned to the dorm and got into his bed" is one noteworthy excerpt from a freshman theme.) However awkward this may be, it is still preferable to the ungrammatical "Each of the students got into their bed" or the unnecessarily wordy "Each of the students got into his or her bed."


2. Collective Antecedents:

Just as collective nouns usually take singular verbs, they also usually take singular pronouns when they are used as antecedents:


The Baggins family was proud of its heritage.

The class of '27 held its reunion at Pete's Disco and Pizza Emporium.


BUT: After the game the team returned to their homes.


3. Compound Antecedents with and:


Compound antecedents joined by and ordinarily require a plural pronoun:


Karl and Keith carried their skis to the lift.

With Mugwert at the wheel the car and the driver often go their separate ways.


Sometimes, as with subject-verb relationships, apparent compounds are considered singular:

Osgood's wife and helpmate lost her cool when he came home snockered.


Compound antecedents joined by and preceded by Each or Every take singular pronouns. Each man, woman, and child in the crowd considered Wilberforce to be his or her hero. (Notice that this example also illustrates the use of his or her for mixed gender antecedents.)

Every dog and cat should have its own Fleaflogger collar.



4. Compound Antecedents with or, nor

Singular antecedents joined with or or nor (either . . . or; neither . . . nor) take singular pronouns.


Neither Osgood nor Mugwert could find his way out of a paper bag.

It is either the Frog or the Prince that appeals to Buttercup.


(Notice that the person and number of that are only apparent in its use with the verb appeals. Be careful with who, which, and that when they are subjects to check the antecedent for person, number, and gender before choosing the verb form that follows these relatives.)


When plural antecedents are joined to singular antecedents, the antecedent nearest the pronoun determines its person, number, and gender.


Neither the scoutmaster nor the boy scouts know they are walking into a nudist's camp.
Neither the scouts nor the scoutmaster knows he is walking into a nudist's camp.


Not . . . but constructions are treated exactly as either . . . or constructions.


Not only the scoutmaster but the scouts knew they were in the wrong camp.
Not only the scouts but the scoutmaster closed his eyes immediately.


5 . Singular Indefinite Antecedents:


Singular indefinite pronouns used as antecedents require singular pronouns.


Anyone wanting Captain Dashfoot's autograph must furnish his own paper and pen.
Each of the frogs in the pond sang its song to Buttercup.


NOTE: Remember that all of the -body, -thing, and -one words are singular: anybody, everybody, somebody, nobody, etc.


6. Plural Indefinite Antecedents:


Plural indefinite pronouns used as antecedents require plural pronouns.


Many try their best; several fail at what they do; a few succeed in all of their endeavors; others never participate in things that challenge them.


NOTE: With some, most, or all (which can be singular or plural depending on context) there is usually an accompanying noun to determine the number (and sometimes the gender).


Some of the boys lost their shirts.
 Some of the grass lost its color.


7 . Antecedents of Relative Pronouns:


The relative pronouns (who, which, that) all have the same form when used as subjects whether they are singular, plural, first, second or third person. For example:


It is I who am leaving.
 It is you who are leaving.
 It is she who is leaving.
 It is we who are leaving.
 It is they who are leaving.


The only time agreement between a relative pronoun and its antecedent becomes important is when the relative pronoun is the subject of a clause; then it determines the form of the verb.

Seldom is there a pronoun-antecedent/subject-verb problem when there is a single, clear cut substantive serving as the antecedent of the relative pronoun.


Archie is the cockroach who was a poet in a former life.

(Who refers clearly to cockroach which is third person, singular; therefore, who is third singular.)


Archie is one of those poets that write free verse when they are in the mood.

(That could logically refer to poets, one, or Archie. The nearest antecedent takes precedence, however, so that is third person plural.) We also know that is masculine because it ultimately refers to Archie. When the relative pronoun itself is an antecedent, the resulting pronoun must agree in person, number, and gender with the original antecedent of the relative pronoun.)


Sometimes logic dictates that the relative pronoun is singular even when the nearest antecedent is plural:

 Archie is the only one of these poets who types all of his poems in lower case letters.


8. Demonstrative Adjectives:


The antecedent of a demonstrative adjective (this, that, these, those) is the noun it modifies. If that noun is singular, a singular demonstrative is required. If it is plural, a plural demonstrative is needed.


These kinds of poets are always temperamental.

That sort of poetry is difficult to write.


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