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Grammar and Mechanics: 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 the pronouns that refer to them should agree in number. Note that APA recommends use of the singular "they." APA 7, Section 4.18 has information on this topic as well.

Singular Noun, Singular Pronoun

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

Example: The importance of this study is that the study may allow researchers to understand the impact of the Common Core on teaching.
  • Rather than repeating "study" twice, it is possible to use a pronoun.
Revision: The importance of this study is that it may allow researchers to understand the impact of the Common Core on teaching.
  • Because "study" 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 the webpage on subject–verb agreement for more on singular and plural subjects.

Example: A community group of teachers met to see if it could find a way to help students improve their SAT scores.
  • Because the subject is singular ("a community group"), the pronoun ("it") must also be singular.

Plural Noun, Plural Pronoun

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

Example: When participants arrived for their interview, participants needed help finding the correct location.
  • Because "participants" is plural, use a plural pronoun to replace it.
Revision: When participants arrived for their interview, they needed help finding the correct location.

 

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

Example: The supervisor and the employees disagreed about the number of times they should meet each month.
  • Because the subject is plural ("the supervisor and the employees"), the pronoun ("they") must also be plural.
Example: Participant 3 stated that he hoped his students had reviewed their notes carefully.
  • Because 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.
  • Because the subject is plural ("both"), the pronoun ("their") must also be plural.

Pronoun Ambiguity

Although pronouns are useful for avoiding repetition, they should be used sparingly to keep the meaning of the sentence clear.

Example: The client and the vendor agreed that he would schedule the follow-up meeting.
  • The pronoun here ("he") is unclear—to whom does it refer? Was the client or the vendor responsible for scheduling the follow-up meeting? Because the pronoun "he" is ambiguous here, it is better to revise the sentence using a noun instead.
Revision: The client and the vendor agreed that the vendor would schedule the follow-up meeting.

Singular "They"

Many academic publications have started accepting the use of the plural pronoun "they" as a singular pronoun, meaning writers use "they" as a singular pronoun to avoid gendered pronouns. Although the pronoun "they" is only a plural pronoun in some style guides, APA encourages writers to use "they" as a singular or plural 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 explanation in mind, when specifically writing about a person or group of people who prefer the singular they, writers should also use the singular they. However, the Walden Writing Center staff has two additional recommendations regarding this pronoun: We recommend that 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

Example: A teacher should carefully choose professional development opportunities that address his gaps in knowledge.

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

Gender-Neutral Pronouns Policy

Walden University prides itself as an inclusive institution that serves a diverse population of students. Committed to broadening the university’s understanding of inclusivity and diversity, Walden will now accept gender-neutral pronouns in student writing. This practice acknowledges APA’s recent endorsement of the singular "they" and also embraces alternative pronouns currently in circulation (e.g., the nominatives xe, ve, ze/zir, ey, and zhe and their associated derivations). Walden recognizes that discussion around gender identity is ongoing. As such, the university will accept any pronoun in student writing so long as evidence can be provided that it is accepted as a respectful term by the community it represents.

For more information, please read our blog post, "Inclusive Language Policy Announcement."