Pronoun Agreement

We may not have it all together, but together we have it all.

One of the things my grammar teachers always drummed into our heads back in school was that pronouns have to agree with their antecedents both in number and in gender. Remember that?

Say what? What’s an antecedent, David? I thought that meant someone who had already died.

Well, an antecedent can actually be a preceding event or condition. Something that took place or was in effect before something else. But we’re not talking about the general meaning of the term here.

In grammar, according to Wikipedia, an antecedent is a noun, noun phrase, or clause to which an anaphor refers in a coreference. Huh? Now we’re really getting confused. Webster simplifies it as “a substantive word, phrase or clause referred to by a pronoun.”

Really? This is supposed to be simple and understandable. What does all this mean in plain English? Give me an example.

Okay: “John took his place in line.” Simple enough sentence?

“John” is a noun and is the subject of the sentence. “Took” is the verb of the sentence. “Place” is another noun and is the direct object in this sentence. It tells us what John took. “In line” is a prepositional phrase describing what place John took. “His” is a possessive pronoun telling whose place we’re talking about.

To what does “his” refer? To John. Therefore, “John” is the antecedent of the pronoun “his.” You wouldn’t say John took her place in line, because “her” doesn’t agree with “John” in gender. You wouldn’t say John took their place in line, because “their” doesn’t agree with “John” in number. You say “his” because it agrees with “John”—its antecedent—both in number and gender.

Thus, if we’d been talking about John and Mary, we would have said “their” place, and if we’d been talking about Mary alone, we’d have said “her” place. These are pretty simple examples. No one would have screwed this up.

But what if I wanted to tell you everybody got in line. Most writers would likely say “Everybody took their place in line.” And that’s just wrong.

Yes, I realize “everybody” encompasses more than one person—maybe even a whole horde of them. But “everybody” is singular. Would you say “Everybody say so?” No, of course not. You’d say “Everybody says so.” Why? Because “everybody” is singular, and “says” is the third person singular form of “say.” Probably no one would make this error. It’s too obvious.

So why say “Everybody took their place?” Everybody is STILL singular. And the pronoun referring to it must also be singular. “Everybody took HIS place in line” is the correct statement.

This particular grammatical error is primarily caused—or at least exacerbated—by “political correctness.” We don’t want to slight females, and we’ve all forgotten that “he” and “him” and “his” can be used generically. Kind of like “mankind.” When we use that term, we’re not excluding all women. We’re just using the term generically to cover all of humanity.

Advertising has also dumbed down our language in the area of pronoun agreement. We see or hear, “Walmart is having their Fourth of July sale.” Come again?

We didn’t say “Walmart are,” so why did we say “their?” Walmart has thousands of stores and probably over a million employees, but it’s still one company. Singular.

Let’s all try to pay more attention to making our pronouns agree with the nouns they’re connected to. And, yes, I know I just ended a sentence with a preposition. To quote Sir Winston Churchill, “There are some rules of grammar up with which I shall not put.” You’d have thought I was being stuffy if I’d said the nouns to which they are connected.

Please comment on whether or not I’ve made my point here. Do we need to talk about this subject more in another post? I love hearing from you.

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imageDavid N. Walker is a Christian father and grandfather, a grounded pilot and a near-scratch golfer who had to give up the game because of shoulder problems. A graduate of Duke University, he spent 42 years as a health insurance agent. Most of that career was spent in Texas, but for a few years he traveled many other states. He started writing about 20 years ago, and has six unpublished novels to use as primers on how NOT to write fiction. He has just e-pubbed his devotional, Heaven Sent: 67 Stories of Godly Thoughts and Inspiration (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008CRL82M). His new fiction work—a series of novellas set during the period from 1860 to 1880 is underway. The first one is in the editing process, and he’s currently writing the second one.

Contact David at davwalktx@yahoo.com or tweet him at @davidnwalkertx

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About David N. Walker

David N. Walker is a Christian husband, father and grandfather, a grounded pilot and a near-scratch golfer who had to give up the game because of shoulder problems. A graduate of Duke University, he spent 42 years in the health insurance industry, during which time he traveled much of the United States. He started writing about 20 years ago and has been a member and leader in several writers' groups. Christianity 101: The Simplified Christian Life, the devotional Heaven Sent and the novella series, Fancy, are now available in paperback and in Kindle and Nook formats, as well as through Smashwords and Kobo. See information about both of these by clicking "Books" above.
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10 Responses to Pronoun Agreement

  1. Julie Glover says:

    This was drilled into me by my father as well, that singular nouns such as “everybody” get a singular pronoun. However, I have noticed a move away from such usage. It’s particularly prevalent in song lyrics, where it’s a free-for-all with noun-pronoun agreement! I often just sing the lyrics to myself correctly.

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  2. Ah David even trying to understand grammar makes my mind bleed. Oh why didn’t they force me to learn this at school (I think the education system was trying to be progressive). Thanks for your examples – they helped and I hope will start to sink in. I’m really grateful you are taking the time to help grammatically challenged people like myself!

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  3. Jillian Dodd - YA Author says:

    That’s what I usually do too. Change it, so I don’t have to deal with it!

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  4. Laura says:

    I truly hate the use of the plural pronoun when the antecedent is a company. Most authorities now allow the use of “they” and “their” to refer to a single antecedent when the gender is unknown or unimportant — at least in informal writing. But I’m seeing its use when the gender is known now. For example, “A woman left the building carrying their purse.” Ugh.

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    • Thanks, Laura. If you follow this blog, you may find examples now and then where my education, which came during the Spanish-American War, differs from what is taught today. I consider much of the change in rules of grammar to be a dumbing down of our language, and I try to stick with more classical rules. Hope I don’t offend anyone.

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  5. Your point about “everybody” is such a good one that is often blatantly used incorrectly as you demonstrate with the Walmart add. I have to stop and think about it whenever it pops up in my writing and half the time I change the wording so I don’t have to deal with it … kind of like running around your backhand in tennis! Thanks for another important reminder.

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