Pronouns Part I

What is a Pronoun?

If there were no pronouns, all types of writing would be quite tedious to read. We would soon be frustrated by reading sentences like Bob said that Bob was tired or Christina told the class that Christina received an A. Pronouns help a writer avoid constant repetition. Knowing just how pronouns work is an important aspect of clear and concise writing.  Part I addresses pronoun usage in general, Part II addresses additional considerations for gendered pronouns and gender identity, and Part III addresses possessive pronouns.

Pronoun Antecedents

A pronoun is a word that takes the place of (or refers back to) a noun or another pronoun. The word or words a pronoun refers to is called the antecedent of the pronoun. 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.

Antecedent Identification

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 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 from the following table, making this determination is sometimes not as easy as it might seem.

Infographic, Singular vs Plural Antecedents,
Figure 8.1: Connecting Pronouns and Antecedents Clearly

Antecedent and Pronoun Matches

Antecedents and pronouns need to match in terms of number (singular or plural) and gender.

Example 1

Lani complained that she was exhausted. She refers to Lani.

  • Lani is the antecedent of she.

Jeremy left the party early, so I did not see him until Monday at work.

  • Him refers to Jeremy.Jeremy is the antecedent of him.

Crina and Rosalie have been best friends ever since they were freshman in high school.

  • They refers to Crina and Rosalie. The compound, plural subject Crina and Rosalie is the antecedent of they.


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 the following sentence:

Example 2

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:

Example 3

Each student should do his or her own work.


To avoid pronoun and antecedent problems, you should take three steps:

  1. Identify the antecedent.
  2. Determine if the antecedent is singular or plural.
  3. Make sure the antecedent and pronoun match, preferably by making both plural if possible.

However, when referring to people, 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 he nor she. The Associated Press updated its 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 is usually possible and is always 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 to avoid any confusion. 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. See Pronouns Part II for some ideas on how to structure your sentences to avoid pronoun usage in a variety of ways.

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.

Agreement in Number

If the pronoun takes the place of or refers to a singular noun, it should also be singular unless otherwise noted.

Example 4

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.”

Example 5

Original: Everyone should do what they think is best.


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.

Example 6

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.

Example 7

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.


Agreement in Person

If you use a consistent person, your reader is less likely to be confused.

Example 8

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.


Agreement in Person

Singular Pronouns

Plural Pronouns

First Person



my (mine)



our (ours)

Second Person



your (yours)



your (your)

Third Person

he, she, it, (singular) they

him, her, it

his, her, its, (singular) their



their (theirs)

Singular and Plural Pronouns

Example 9

Incorrect: When a person (3rd) goes to a restaurant, you (2nd) should leave a tip.

Correct, but clunky: When a person (3rd) goes to a restaurant, he or she should leave a tip.

Explaore your options for revising out gendered pronouns altogether in hypothetical sentences, when a specific person or people aren’t being referenced.

Correct: When we (1st) go to a restaurant, I should (1st) should leave a tip. (Make it personal to you)

Correct:  When people go to a restaurant, they should leave a tip. (Make it plural)

Correct: When going to a restaurant, leave a tip. (Take out all the people and make it more objective and commanding)

Correct: At a restaurant, leaving a tip is the decent thing to do. (Change it up, and include more of your personality as a writer!)

Exercise 1: Edit the following paragraph by correcting pronoun agreement errors in number and person.

Over spring break I visited my older cousin, Diana, and they took me to a butterfly exhibit at a museum. Diana and I have been close ever since she was young. Our mothers are twin sisters, and she is inseparable! Diana knows how much I love butterflies, so it was their special present to me. I have a soft spot for caterpillars too. I love them because something about the way it transforms is so interesting to me. One summer my grandmother gave me a butterfly growing kit, and you got to see the entire life cycle of five Painted Lady butterflies. I even got to set it free. So when my cousin said they wanted to take me to the butterfly exhibit, I was really excited!

Indefinite Pronouns and Agreement

Indefinite pronouns do not refer to a specific person or thing and are usually singular. Note that a pronoun that refers to an indefinite singular pronoun should also be singular. The following are some common indefinite pronouns.


each one





each other







one another














no one



Common Indefinite Pronouns

Example 10

Incorrect: Everyone (sing.) should do what they (plur.) can to help.

Correct: Everyone (sing.) should do what he or she (sing.) can to help.

Incorrect: Someone (sing.) left their (plur.) backpack in the library.

Correct: Someone (sing.) left his or her (sing.) backpack in the library.

Collective Nouns

Collective nouns suggest more than one person but are usually considered singular. Look over the following examples of collective nouns.

audience faculty public
band family school
class government society
committee group team
company jury tribe
Common Collective Nouns

Example 11

Incorrect: Lara’s company (sing.) will have their (plur.) annual picnic next week.

Correct: Lara’s company (sing.) will have its (sing.) annual picnic next week.

Exercise 2: Complete the following sentences by selecting the correct pronoun. Copy the completed sentence onto your own sheet of paper. Then circle the noun the pronoun replaces.

  1. In the current economy, nobody wants to waste ________ money on frivolous things.
  2. If anybody chooses to go to medical school, ________ must be prepared to work long hours.
  3. The plumbing crew did ________ best to repair the broken pipes before the next ice storm.
  4. If someone is rude to you, try giving ________ a smile in return.
  5. My family has ________ faults, but I still love them no matter what.
  6. The school of education plans to train ________ students to be literacy tutors.
  7. The commencement speaker said that each student has a responsibility toward ________.
  8. My mother’s singing group has ________ rehearsals on Thursday evenings.
  9. No one should suffer ________ pains alone.
  10. I thought the flock of birds lost ________ way in the storm.

Subject and Object Pronouns

Subject pronouns function as subjects in a sentence. Object pronouns function as the object of a verb or of a preposition.

Singular Pronouns

Plural Pronouns













he, she, it, they (singular)

him, her, it, them (singular)



Singular and Plural Pronouns

The following sentences show pronouns as subjects:

Example 12

She loves the Blue Ridge Mountains in the fall.

Every summer, they picked up litter from national parks.

The following sentences show pronouns as objects:

Example 13

Marie leaned over and kissed them.

Jane moved it to the corner.


Note that a pronoun can also be the object of a preposition.

Near them, the children played.

My mother stood between us.

The pronouns us and them are objects of the prepositions near and between. They answer the questions near whom? And between whom?

Compound subject pronouns are two or more pronouns joined by a conjunction or a preposition that function as the subject of the sentence.

The following sentences show pronouns with compound subjects:

Example 14

Incorrect: Me and Harriet visited the Grand Canyon last summer.

Correct: Harriet and I visited the Grand Canyon last summer.

Correct: Jenna accompanied Harriet and me on our trip.


Note that object pronouns are never used in the subject position. One way to remember this rule is to remove the other subject in a compound subject, leave only the pronoun, and see whether the sentence makes sense.

For example, Me visited the Grand Canyon last summer sounds immediately incorrect.


Compound object pronouns are two or more pronouns joined by a conjunction or a preposition that function as the object of the sentence.

Example 15

Incorrect: I have a good feeling about Janice and I.

Correct: I have a good feeling about Janice and me.


It is correct to write Janice and me, as opposed to me and Janice. Just remember it is more polite to refer to yourself last.

Exercise 3: Revise the following sentences in which the subject and object pronouns are used incorrectly. Copy the revised sentence onto your own sheet of paper. Write a C for each sentence that is correct.

  1. Meera and me enjoy doing yoga together on Sundays.
  2. She and him have decided to sell their house.
  3. Between you and I, I do not think Jeffrey will win the election.
  4. Us and our friends have game night the first Thursday of every month.
  5. They and I met while on vacation in Mexico.
  6. Napping on the beach never gets boring for Alice and I.
  7. New Year’s Eve is not a good time for she and I to have a serious talk.
  8. You exercise much more often than me.
  9. I am going to the comedy club with Yolanda and she.
  10. The cooking instructor taught her and me a lot.



Works Cited

Andrews, Travis M. “The Singular, Gender-Neutral ‘They’ Added to the AP Stylebook. (Associated Press Stylebook).” The Washington Post, (28 Mar. 2017): Na, 2017.


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