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Grammar: Noun-Pronoun Agreement

Noun-Pronoun Agreement Basics

The purpose of a pronoun is to take the place or refer back to a noun in a sentence. Just like subjects and verbs, nouns and pronouns should agree in number within a sentence.

Singular Noun, Singular Pronoun

When writing a sentence, using the same word more than once can get repetitive.

Example: When a woman is sick, the woman should call a doctor.

Rather than repeating woman twice, we could use a pronoun.

Example: When a woman is sick, she should call a doctor.

Since woman is singular (there is only one), use a singular pronoun (she) to replace it.

Singular They

Recently, many academic publications have started accepting the use of the plural pronoun they  as a singular pronoun, meaning writers use they  to correspond to singular subjects in an effort to avoid gendered pronouns. Although the pronoun they should be used as a plural pronoun per standard English grammar rules, APA allows writers to use they as a singular pronoun with the specific intention of embracing gender diversity.

According to the APA Style blog, “when transgender and gender nonconforming people (including agender, genderqueer, and other communities) use the singular they as their pronoun, writers should likewise use the singular they when writing about them” (para. 1).

With this in mind, when writers are specifically writing about a person or group of people who prefer the singular “they,” writers should also use the singular they. However, we have two additional recommendations regarding this pronoun. First, we recommend writers explicitly explain that they are using the singular they and the context in which they are doing so to ensure the reader knows that the use of the singular they is not a grammatical error.

Additionally, writers can often avoid the issue of gender-neutral singular pronouns by revising a sentence to make the subject plural:

Original sentence: A teacher should carefully choose professional development opportunities that address her gaps in knowledge.

Revised sentence: Teachers should carefully choose professional development opportunities that address their gaps in knowledge.

Plural Noun, Plural Pronoun

What would happen if we made the subject of our sentence plural?

Example: When individuals are sick, individuals should call a doctor.

Now, since individuals is plural, we should choose a plural pronoun to replace it:

Example: When individuals are sick, they should call a doctor.

Multiple Singular Nouns, Plural Pronoun

Finally, if there are multiple single subjects, we must use a plural pronoun:

Example: When a supervisor and an employee are sick, they should call a doctor.

Pronoun Ambiguity

While pronouns are useful to help writers avoid repetition, pronouns should be used sparingly to keep the meaning of the sentence clear.  Take a look at this sentence:

Example: When Jeff and Brian joined the team members, they were scared.

The pronoun here (they) is unclear--to whom does it refer? Was the team scared? Were Jeff and Brian scared? Because the pronoun they is ambiguous, choosing a noun rather than a pronoun will help with clarity.

Example: When Jeff and Brian joined the team members, the team members were scared.

Noun–Pronoun Agreement Video Playlist