by Dodici Azpadu
Correct use of pronouns includes agreement with an antecedent, clear reference to an antecedent, and appropriate case selection. An antecedent is the noun that a pronoun substitutes for. All related pronouns and antecedents must agree in number—all singular or all plural.
Maria carried her son.
The parents carried their children.
A frequent error is using plural pronouns with indefinite pronoun antecedents. Be on guard for the following words. Some may look plural, but they all require singular agreement.
Everyone wants to do their best. [Incorrect]
Everyone wants to do his or her best. [Correct]
In addition to using his or her, another way to correct mismatched indefinite pronoun antecedents and plural pronouns is to make the antecedent plural.
People want to do their best.
Making the antecedent plural is the easiest solution, and it avoids the wordy his or her repetition. Making the antecedent plural also avoids gender assumptions such as all doctors are male and all flight attendants are female.
The doctors went to their cars. [Not: The doctor went to his car.]
The flight attendants took their seats. [Not: The flight attendant took her seat.]
Generic or Collective Nouns
A second type of agreement error is using plural pronouns with generic nouns or collective nouns. Generic nouns refer to one member of a group such as trucker or cowboy.
The cowboy ethos includes a loner and his horse.
Collective nouns ordinarily operate as a unit, so the noun and its related pronouns should be singular.
The jury gave its verdict.
If the meaning is clearly plural, use the plural, but to be on the safe side, add a plural antecedent.
Members of the jury announced their verdict.
Errors with generic or collective nouns and pronouns can be corrected by the same three methods described for common agreement errors: use the singular his or her, create plural antecedents, or rewrite the sentence.
Finally, note that compound antecedents joined with and are usually plural.
Jack and Jill went to their favorite watering hole.
However, compound antecedents joined by or or nor (or with (n)either/(n)or combinations) agree with the closest antecedent.
Neither the students nor Mr. Ghastly finished his job. [This is correct but should be rewritten to avoid confusion.]
Neither Mr. Ghastly nor the students finished their jobs. [Better]
Dodici Azpadu, MFA, PhD is a novelist, short story writer, and poet. Her fiction publications include: Saturday Night in the Prime of Life and Goat Song (Aunt Lute/Spinsters Ink) and subsequently Onlywoman (London, England). Living Room (2010) and Traces of a Woman (2014), both by Neuma Books, are available as ebooks. She’s currently at work on a novel, tentatively titled Living Lies.
Her poetry publications include Wearing the Phantom Out (2013) and Rumi’s Falcon from Neuma Books. Individual poems have appeared in Malpais Review, Adobe Walls, ContraACultura (online), Parnassus, Sinister Wisdom, Latuca, The Rag, and The Burning Bush. Her work has also been anthologized in Centos: A Collage of Poems and Hey Pasean!
Dodici teaches “The Joy of Poetry” and “Craft of Creating Writing” classes through University of New Mexico’s Osher Lifelong Learning.
This article was originally published in the February 2011 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.