As you write, make sure that you are using the correct pronouns. When a pronoun matches the person and number of its antecedent, we say that it agrees with it antecedent. Let’s look at a couple of examples:
- I hate it when Zacharias tells me what to do. He‘s so full of himself.
- The Finnegans are shouting again. I swear you could hear them from across town!
In the first sentence, Zacharias is singular, third person, and masculine. The pronouns he and himself are also singular, third person, and masculine, so they agree. In the second sentence, the Finnegans is plural and third person. The pronoun them is also plural and third person.
When you select your pronoun, you also need to ensure you use the correct case of pronoun. Remember we learned about three cases: subject, object, and possessive. The case of your pronoun should match its role in the sentence. For example, if your pronoun is doing an action, it should be a subject:
- He runs every morning.
- I hate it when she does this.
However, when something is being done to your pronoun, it should be an object:
- Birds have always hated me.
- My boss wanted to talk to him.
- Give her the phone and walk away.
Replace each bolded word with the correct pronoun:
- Hannah had always loved working with plants.
- People often lost patience with Colin.
- Justin was unsure how well Justin and Terry would together.
- Alicia and Katie made a formidable team.
- She had always loved working with plants.
- People often lost patience with him.
- Justin was unsure how well he and Terry would together.
- They made a formidable team.
However, things aren’t always this straightforward. Let’s take a look at some examples where things are a little more confusing.
Person and Number
Some of the trickiest agreements are with indefinite pronouns:
- Every student should do his or her best on this assignment.
- If nobody lost his or her scarf, then where did this come from?
As we learned earlier in this outcome, words like every and nobody are singular, and demand singular pronouns. Here are some of the words that fall into this category:
Some of these may feel “more singular” than others, but they all are technically singular. Thus, using “he or she” is correct (while they is incorrect).
However, as you may have noticed, the phrase “he or she” (and its other forms) can often make your sentences clunky. When this happens, it may be best to revise your sentences to have plural antecedents. Because “he or she” is clunky, you’ll often see issues like this:
The way each individual speaks can tell us so much about him or her. It tells us what groups they associate themselves with, both ethnically and socially.
As you can see, in the first sentence, him or her agrees with the indefinite pronoun each. However, in the second sentence, the writer has shifted to the plural they, even though the writer is talking about the same group of people. When you write, make sure your agreement is correct and consistent.
Here’s a paragraph that uses “he or she” liberally:
Every writer will experience writer’s block at some point in his or her career. He or she will suddenly be unable to move on in his or her work. A lot of people have written about writer’s block, presenting different strategies to “beat the block.” However, different methods work for different people. Each writer must find the solutions that work best for him or her.
How would you best revise this paragraph? Type your ideas in the text frame below, and then look at the suggested revisions.
- Writers will all experience writer’s block at some point in their careers. They will suddenly be unable to move on in their work. A lot of people have written about writer’s block, presenting different strategies to “beat the block.” However, different methods work for different people. Writers must find the solutions that work best for them.
- As a writer, you will experience writer’s block at some point in your career. You will suddenly be unable to move on in your work. A lot of people have written about writer’s block, presenting different strategies to “beat the block.” However, different methods work for different people. You must find the solutions that work best for you.
Were those revisions what you expected them to be?
As we’ve just seen, indefinite pronouns demand singular pronouns, like in “To each his or her own.” However, in informal speech, you’ll often hear things like “To each their own” or “Someone is singing in the hallway. If they haven’t stopped in five minutes, I’m going to have to take drastic measures.” If you think about your own speech, it’s very likely that you use they as a singular pronoun for someone whose gender you don’t know.
So why do people use they this way, even though it’s a plural? It likely stems from the clunkiness of the phrase “he or she.” It is also possible that they is following the same evolution as the word you. In Early Modern English, you was used as either a plural, second-person pronoun or as a polite form for the more common, singular thee. However, you eventually overtook almost all of the second-person pronouns, both singular and plural.
While this use of the singular they is still not “officially” correct—and you definitely shouldn’t use this in your English papers—it’s interesting to watch English change before our very eyes.
Some of the most common pronoun mistakes occur with the decision between “you and I” and “you and me.” People will often say things like “You and me should go out for drinks.” Or—thinking back on the rule that it should be “you and I”—they will say “Susan assigned the task to both you and I.” However, both of these sentences are wrong. Remember that every time you use a pronoun you need to make sure that you’re using the correct case.
Let’s take a look at the first sentence: “You and me should go out for drinks.” Both pronouns are the subject of the sentence, so they should be in subject case: “You and I should go out for drinks.”
In the second sentence (Susan assigned the task to both you and I), both pronouns are the object of the sentence, so they should be in object case: “Susan assigned the task to both you and me.”