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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: Francine edited her paper because her paper was full of errors.
  • Rather than repeating paper twice, it is possible to use a pronoun.
Revision: Francine edited her paper because it was full of errors.
  • Since paper is singular (there is only one), use a singular pronoun (it) to replace it.

 

Remember to find the true subject of the sentence to determine if the pronoun should be singular or plural. See our webpage on subject–verb agreement for more on singular and plural subjects.

Example: Each student must find his or her own note-taking strategy.
  • Since the subject is singular (each), the pronoun (his or her) must also be singular.
Example: Neither Bob nor Alex believed he would receive the award.
  • Since the subject is singular (neither), the pronoun (he) must also be singular.
Example: A community group of teachers is meeting tonight to see if it can find a way to help students improve their SAT scores.
  • Since the subject is singular (a community group), the pronoun (it) must also be singular.

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 understanding 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

When the subject of the sentence is plural, the pronoun in the sentence becomes plural as well.

Example: When students arrive on the first day of school, students need help finding the right classroom.
  • Since students is plural, use a plural pronoun to replace it.
Revision: When students arrive on the first day of school, they need help finding the right classroom.

 

Remember to find the true subject of the sentence to determine if the pronoun should be singular or plural. See our webpage on subject–verb agreement for more on singular and plural subjects.

Example: When a supervisor and an employee disagree, they should discuss the situation.
  • Since the subject is plural (a supervisor and an employee), the pronoun (they) must also be plural.
Example: The professor hoped that the students had reviewed their notes carefully.
  • Since the subject is plural (students), the pronoun (their) must also be plural.
Example: Both Smith (2016) and Taylor (2017) believed their results would lead to social change.
  • Since the subject is plural (both), the pronoun (their) must also be plural.

Pronoun Ambiguity

Although pronouns are useful to help writers avoid repetition, they 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? In this example, because the pronoun they is ambiguous, choosing a noun rather than a pronoun will help with clarity.
Revision: When Jeff and Brian joined the team members, the team members were scared.

Knowledge Check: Noun–Pronoun Agreement