English grammar

Module 2, Pronouns, Lesson 10:

Challenges in Pronoun Agreement

English grammar

Sometimes it can be difficult to ensure that you are using the correct pronoun. The challenge is making sure you know which word is the antecedent.

Challenge 1: Interrupting Phrases

Try not to get distracted by phrases that come between the antecedent and the pronoun.

Jeremy, one of the waiters, dropped his tray.
Jeremy = his, but waiters = their. Don't use the plural pronoun their if Jeremy was the only waiter who dropped his tray.

Cross out the interrupting phrase to make sure you find the correct antecedent.

Jeremy, one of the waiters, dropped his tray.

Challenge 2: When the Reference Is Unclear

Usually the pronoun refers to the last noun mentioned or the last subject, but sometimes it's unclear which noun is the antecedent. Some textbooks call this "ambiguous pronoun reference." If using a pronoun could cause a misunderstanding, it is better to use the noun instead.

Unclear Pronouns Corrections
Joan and Marcie went to work. She was late. Which one was late? The pronoun she could refer to either Joan or Marcie, so it's better to use the name instead of the pronoun.

Joan and Marcie went to work. Marcie was late.
Joan and Marcie went to work. Joan was late.

My father was just like his grandfather, but he was not as tall. Who was not as tall? He could refer to either father or grandfather.

My father was just like my grandfather, but my father was not as tall.

Ambiguous pronoun reference occurs often when you write because in your imagination, you can clearly see whom you are writing about. Have a friend read your essay for you, paying special attention to the pronouns.

Challenge 3: Pronoun Shifts

Make sure you don't change from first or third person to second person, or vice-versa. In other words, don't switch pronouns midway through your sentence. If you start with the first person (I, we, etc.) or third person (she, they, etc.), stick with it.

One important cause of pronoun shifts is the use of the indefinite you, which is an informal way to talk about others.

You take a driving test when you want to get your license.
In this sentence, you is actually a stand-in for people. What you really mean is that, in general, people take a driving test when they want to get their license.

When using the indefinite you, a pronoun shift is an easy mistake to make. Many people start their sentences in first or third person and suddenly switch to the indefinite you. The reverse can also happen. The chart below will help you identify pronoun shifts, and show you some easy ways to fix them.

When people talk to each other, it's easier and more personal to use the indefinite you than to use the word people. While using the indefinite you is fine for informal speech, it's not appropriate in formal writing. When you write, don't use you unless you mean the reader.
Pronoun Shift Correction
First ⇒ Second We went to the top of the Sears Tower where you could see the entire city of Chicago. We went to the top of the Sears Tower where we could see the entire city of Chicago.
Second ⇒ Third When you go to the movies, people can buy their ticket in advance. When you go to the movies, you can buy your ticket in advance.


When people go to the movies, they can buy their tickets in advance.

Third ⇒ Second A police officer has a dangerous job because you often put your life at risk. A police officer has a dangerous job because he or she often puts his or her life at risk.

If you think this phrasing sounds awkward, you're not alone! Although using he or she avoids gender-biased language, it often results in strange-sounding sentences. The better option is to make your sentence plural:

Police officers have a dangerous job because they often put their lives at risk.

When you talk to someone using the second person, it's called direct address. We often use direct address when we ask questions (how are you?). When you use someone's name as the direct address in a sentence, that person's name is not the antecedent; the unstated you is the real antecedent.

Maryanne, are these your glasses?
The antecedent is the unstated you, not Maryanne, so use your, not her.

Another type of pronoun shift occurs when someone starts a sentence with a singular pronoun and later uses a plural pronoun. This information is covered in Lesson 9.

Challenge 4: Collective Nouns

Collective nouns appear to be plural nouns because they really refer to a group, but they are often singular. You need to understand how the group is acting in order to choose the correct pronoun. Sometimes the group acts as a whole. Other times the members of the group act as individuals.

The team won its last game.
In this sentence, the collective noun is singular. The team was working as a whole to win.

The team took their uniforms home and washed them.
In this sentence, the collective noun is plural because the team members individually took their uniforms home to wash them.

Practice What You've Learned

English grammar

Part 1

Choose the best word to complete the sentence.
The turtle and the hare raced. won the race.
It, The turtle
Mr. Medema, one of my teachers, found car windows had been left open.
his, their
Bryan and Jackie, members of the jewelry guild, displayed beautiful work.
his, her, their
Dimitri and Kenny recorded songs. was really great.
His, Dimitri's
The dragon and the knight fought furiously. Finally, won.
he, the dragon
Melanie, one of the champion swimmers, was on school swim team.
her, their
James Patterson, one of my favorite authors, has added a new book to Middle School book series.
his, their
The class took out homework papers.
its, their
The mother duck and her duckling got stranded in the drain. The rescuer was able to get out first.
her, the mother
The brothers, both athletes, got scholarships because of grades, not sports.
his, their

Part 2

Click on any pronoun errors in the following sentences. If the sentence has no errors, click no mistakes.
When we studied Spanish, we learned that the teacher would stay after school to tutor you.
(no mistakes)
An astronaut has an exciting career because they get to see things from space.
(no mistakes)
Randy went to the library because it is a good place for him to find books for his research paper.
(no mistakes)
My family likes to spend their vacation together on the beach.
(no mistakes)
If you want to find a kayak paddle, go to the sporting goods store, where you should be able to find several kinds.
(no mistakes)
In Australia, Ezra visited a zoo where you can see koalas in a natural setting.
(no mistakes)
Jonas got a job as a newsboy in 1900 when you could find a boy selling newspapers on most city street corners.
(no mistakes)
When Margie visited China, she stood on the Great Wall of China, which you can see from space.
(no mistakes)
David, one of the student drivers in the class, passed their driving test.
(no mistakes)
When my friend and I went swimming, we saw a shark, which could have killed you.
(no mistakes)