Agreement in Number and Gender

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

On Forensic Fridays, we dissect the English language to see what it’s made of and how to use it properly.

In a comment on last week’s post, Denise Young mentioned that one of her pet peeves involved the inconsistency in number in the use of pronouns. I agree with her completely.

What the heck are you talking about, David? What number?

Do you remember that day you woke up in grammar class for a moment and the teacher said something about pronouns needing to agree in number and gender with their antecedents? You don’t remember that? Okay, let’s look at some examples.

She showed the girls her new dress. In that sentence, She, in addition to being the subject of the sentence is the antecedent of the pronoun her. She and her agree in number and gender, because they are both singular and feminine.

You would never say she showed the girls his new dress, or she showed the girls their new dress. This is elementary and obvious.

Knowing that, why would we say Wal-mart had their tires on sale? Wal-mart is singular. There may be a million people employed at Wal-mart, but Wal-mart itself is singular, so the statement should be Wal-mart had its tires on sale. Although the antecedent in the first example was a pronoun, and in this one it’s a noun, the same rule applies.

I’m forever seeing or hearing statements like “the team had their first game last Saturday” or “everybody brought their” own drinks to the party. These statements still fall under the same rule about antecedents. Team and everybody are both singular, so the pronouns to which they refer must also be singular: “the team had its first game” and “everybody brought his own drinks.”

I expect Gloria Steinham may have had something to do with the confusion over this last statement. Apparently she and some of her devotees don’t realize that “he” can be a generic term including both sexes, just as “man” can refer generically to both. Let’s not suspend the rules of grammar just because we don’t want women referred to as “he.” If you can’t stand to use the generic, say “everybody brought his or her own drink.”

Remember, anytime you use a pronoun as a predicate nominative or to modify a direct object, you need to look back at the subject it relates to. Be sure the two refer to the same number and gender.

What grammatical misuse bothers you? What particular area of grammar would you like help with? I’d love to hear and help.


For more information about David N. Walker, click the “About” tab above.

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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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3 Responses to Agreement in Number and Gender

  1. Karlene says:

    Excellent lesson!!! Thank you David.


  2. Correct, Renee, but I was illustrating the fact that sometimes words are singular even if they cover a group of people.


  3. Actually, you could say: “She showed the girls THEIR new dress.”

    (If the dress was going to be shared, among several girls, that is precisely what one would say.)

    Just saying.

    Grammar is NOT as easy as it seems. 😉


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