Edit for Pronoun Agreement

To successfully edit your usage of pronouns in a document, you first may find it useful to review our article on Pronouns.

Subsequently, below is an outline of different ways you can read your document to check for pronoun problems.

How can vague pronoun references be clarified?

  • Search the document for the words it, this, which, and that, and circle each occurrence.
  • Draw an arrow to the antecedent for each circled word.
  • If the antecedent is missing, rewrite the sentence to include a clear antecedent for each vague pronoun.
  • An appropriate noun or noun phrase may be added after this or before which.
  • If a sentence begins with it, replace it with a noun or a noun phrase.

Let’s look at some examples:

Vague: The student’s paper showed little revision between drafts. It lowered his grade.

Replace it with a noun or noun phrase: The student’s paper showed little revision between drafts, and the lack of effort resulted in a lower grade.

Vague: The student’s paper showed little revision between drafts. This lowered his grade.

Add a noun after this: The student’s paper showed little revision between drafts, and this problem lowered his grade.

Vague: The student’s paper showed little revision between drafts, which lowered his grade.

Add a noun before which: The student’s paper showed little revision between drafts, a problem which resulted in a lower grade.

Practice: Solving unclear antecedents due to multiple possible antecedents

To solve problems of unclear antecedents due to multiple possible antecedents, you must first be able to identify all of the pronouns in your writing.

Personal PronounsI, you, he, she, it, we, they, me, him, her, us, them
Demonstrative Pronounsthis, that, these, those
Possessive Pronounsmine, ours, yours, his, hers, theirs
Interrogative PronounsWho, Whom (refer to people); what and which (refer to inanimate objects and animals); who (functions as a subject); whom (functions as an object of preposition or verb); whose (show possession)
Reflexive Pronounsmyself, yourself, himself, herself, oneself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves.
Reciprocal Pronounseach other, one another
Indefinite Pronounsanother, anyone, anybody, anything, each, either, enough, everyone, everything, everybody, other, one, something, much, nobody, few, such…
Relative Pronounswho, whom, which

Once you have identified all of your pronouns, connect these pronouns with their antecedents, making sure that there are no confusing nouns that come between pronouns and antecedents. This recommendation does not mean that no nouns at all can come between pronouns and their antecedents. For example, in the sentence given in the beginning of the present article, “When George Washington was asked to run for office, he initially refused,” the only pronoun is “he.” While there are two nouns in this sentence (“George Washington” and “office”), “George Washington” is the only noun that would be represented by “he.” Since “office” would, instead, usually be replaced with “it,” this second noun causes no problems for readers.

If you do find unclear antecedents due to multiple possible antecedents, there are two easy ways to fix the problem: (1) replace the pronoun with its antecedent, or (2) rewrite the sentence.  Take, for example, this sentence that was given earlier, in which an unclear antecedent for “he” was demonstrated:

President George Washington and his vice president, John Adams, had a difficult relationship, which he wrote about in letters to friends.

This sentence can be fixed by replacing “he” with “Adams,” the writer’s intended antecedent:

President George Washington and his vice president, John Adams, had a difficult relationship, which Adams wrote about in letters to friends.

Alternatively, the sentence can be rewritten in any number of ways to make the antecedent of “he” unambiguous:

Vice President John Adams wrote in letters to friends about the difficult relationship that he had with President George Washington.

Unclear antecedents due to unstated or assumed antecedents

Sometimes an antecedent is unclear not because there are multiple nouns that a pronoun may refer to, but because the noun that the pronoun refers to has not been stated. This error is especially common when writers use first-person plural pronouns—we, us, our, and ours—to imply unity between the writer and the readers. This implied unity may be useful and appropriate when discussing a common problem or need for action, writing about “our problem” or “how we can move forward,” respectively.

However, if you use first-person plural pronouns to emphasize group identity and connect more intimately with readers, make sure that you and your readers share a common understanding of who is included in or excluded from this group. For instance:

In my research on the growing role of standardized testing, it has become clear to me that we need to seriously rethink our educational goals and values.

In this sentence, the writer has not defined who “we” and “our” refer to. While readers can often use prior information and context clues to make a good guess about whether, for example, “we” refers to Americans, residents of a particular state, members of a particular school system, or teachers in a particular school, you should make sure that there is no doubt in readers’ mind about who is included in this group: without this common understanding, you will have a much more difficult time reaching your intended audience and bringing about change—the real goal of a persuasive essay.

One group that demonstrates the value of clear pronouns is politicians. People who hold high-ranking public office rely heavily on the persuasive power of their speaking, and are very careful to always clearly specify their audience. This mindfulness makes their message more powerful, and helps them to avoid embarrassing misunderstandings. It is, for example, extremely rare for President Obama to use words such as “we” or “you” before explicitly defining his audience as “my fellow Americans.” Likewise, politicians serving in the European Union take care to specify whether they are addressing only their fellow nationals, or the entire European community, any time they speak publicly.

Unclear antecedents and unconscious bias

Undefined first-person plural pronouns may go beyond ambiguity and may even alienate or offend readers by unconsciously excluding them from the implied audience of the piece. Such unintentional exclusion is especially prone to happen when members of privileged groups write about historically marginalized groups such as women, people of color, and people with disabilities. For example, writers who argue with the best of intentions that “we should no longer consider people with disabilities as being handicapped, but rather as offering something unique and valuable to our workplace” or that “we need to do a better job of becoming aware of ways in which we have all benefited from institutional prejudice against people of color” are likely unaware that their undefined pronouns logically imply audiences that are fully abled or white, respectively. Writers who find themselves using pronouns in this way need not feel ashamed, but should take care that their audience—whether explicitly stated, implied through undefined pronouns, or left unstated—is appropriately inclusive.

Practice: Solving unclear antecedents due to unstated or assumed antecedents

Unclear antecedents due to unstated or assumed antecedents are mostly due to writers’ assumptions about what their readers will think and know. The best way to test for unclear antecedents of this type is, therefore, to first identify all of the pronouns with unstated antecedents in your writing. Then ask a reader (ideally, a member of your target audience) to look through your paper and explain what any unspecified pronouns refer to. If there are any instances in which your intended meaning of a pronoun differs from your reader’s understanding of that pronoun—if the perceived audience is broader, smaller, or simply different from what you had intended—you need to add or change text to clarify who your audience is. If you are writing about a historically marginalized group, a reader who identifies as a member of that group may be especially helpful in catching instances in which pronouns are not appropriately inclusive.

What is a pronoun-antecedent relationship?

A pronoun is a part of speech that can replace a noun; its antecedent is the person, place, or thing to which the pronoun refers. Unclear pronoun-antecedent relationships, or those without proper agreement, can leave the reader confused. Writers who strive for clarity in their work should be certain that each pronoun has a clear antecedent and that the pronoun and antecedent agree in person (first, second, or third), number, and gender.

How might pronoun-antecedent relationships be clarified?

  • Circle or highlight the pronouns in each paragraph.
  • Look for each pronoun’s antecedent—the person, place, or thing to which the pronoun refers.
  • Draw an arrow from the pronoun to its antecedent.
  • If the antecedent is missing, rewrite the sentence to include a clear antecedent for each pronoun.
  • If the antecedent is there, check for pronoun and antecedent agreement in person, number, and gender.

Let’s look at some examples:

Missing antecedents: He felt better about the revision process when he left his office. (Who left the office? Whose office is it?)

Clear antecedents: The student felt better about the revision process when he left Dr. Brown’s office.

Lack of agreement: The student put books in their backpack and left for our next class. (Student is singular, but the pronouns their and our are plural.)

Proper agreement: The student put books in his backpack and left for his next class.

Vague: Susan visited the animal shelter to see the stray cat before she ate. (Did the visit to the animal shelter occur before Susan ate or before the cat ate?)

Clarified: Before she ate, Susan went to the animal shelter to visit the stray cat.