Definition and Examples of Pronoun Agreement

People in lobby of conference center during coffee break
"After food, everyone took his or her drink and went to the conference room." (Remi Oyedola, Love From Hate, 2010). Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Getty Images

Pronoun agreement is the correspondence of a pronoun with its antecedent in number (singular, plural), person (first, second, third), and gender (masculine, feminine, neuter).

Traditionally, one of the basic principles of pronoun agreement (also called noun-pronoun agreement or pronoun-antecedent agreement) is that a singular pronoun refers to a singular noun while a plural pronoun refers to a plural noun. As discussed below, this usage becomes more complicated when the pronoun is indefinite.

Examples and Observations: Basic Principles

  • "[M]ake pronouns agree in both number and gender with the words to which they refer: All of the students were prepared with their homework, but neither of the absent students has turned in her homework.
    ( All and their are plural pronouns to agree with the plural students; neither is an indefinite pronoun that is always singular and so takes the singular pronoun her.) "One way to avoid sexist language is to use plural forms (we, they, our, their, theirs, us, them) as illustrated in the preceding example." (Sharon Sorenson, Webster's New World Student Writing Handbook, 5th ed. Wiley, 2010)

Agreement With Indefinite Pronouns: Traditional Prescriptive Views

  • "Even though some of the . . . indefinite pronouns may seem to have plural meanings, treat them as singular in formal English. . . . >In class everyone performs at his or her [not their] own fitness level. When a plural pronoun refers mistakenly to a singular indefinite pronoun, you can usually choose one of three options for revision:
    1. Replace the plural pronoun with he or she (or his or her).
    2. Make the antecedent plural.
    3. Rewrite the sentence so that no problem of agreement exists.
    . . . Because the he or she construction is wordy, often the second or third revision strategy is more effective. Be aware that the traditional use of he (or his) to refer to persons of either sex is now considered sexist." (Diana Hacker, The Bedford Handbook, 6th ed. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002)
  • "After food, everyone took his or her drink and went to the conference room." (Remi Oyedola, Love From Hate, 2010)
  • "Gender-neutral singular pronouns. . . . Indefinite pronouns such as anybody and someone don't always satisfy the need for a gender-neutral alternative because they are traditionally regarded as singular antecedents that call for a third-person singular pronoun. Many people substitute the plural they and their for the singular he or she. Although they and their have become common in informal usage, neither is considered acceptable in formal writing, so unless you are given guidelines to the contrary, do not use them in a singular sense." (The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. The University of Chicago Press, 2010)

Agreement With Indefinite Pronouns: Alternative Views

  • "The indefinite pronouns anybody, anyone, each, either, everybody, everyone, neither, nobody, somebody, someone share an interesting and often perplexing characteristic: they are usually grammatically singular and often notionally plural. . . .
    "Conflict here revolves around the use of the pronouns they, their, them, themselves to refer to the indefinite pronouns. Such use, OED evidence shows, goes back to the 14th century. It has been disparaged as improper since the 18th century, however, when such grammarians as Lowth and Lindley Murray decreed the indefinite pronouns singular. Two considerations have strengthened the use of the plural pronoun in reference to a preceding indefinite. The first is notional concord: the indefinite pronouns are often notionally plural--some, indeed, more than others--and in early modern English (before the 18th century) agreement is largely governed by notional concord. The other is the much-touted lack of a common-gender third person singular pronoun in English. . . .
    "The howls of the spiritual descendants of Lowth and Lindley Murray notwithstanding, the plural they, their, them with an indefinite pronoun as referent is in common standard use, both as common-gender singular and to reflect notional agreement." (Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Merriam-Webster, 1994)
  • "At about ten o'clock everyone took their places at the dinner. I sat on M. Reynaud's right and General de Gaulle was on my other side." (Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour, 1949)
  • "Through the 1980s most grammar and usage books insisted on 'Everyone took his seat.' The rationale was that everyone and anyone were incontrovertibly singular, that therefore the subsequent pronoun must be singular, and that the correct singular pronoun was the third-person male pronoun (the so-called generic he). A few well-respected voices pointed to the illogicality of the singular, and gradually more voices objected on the grounds of gender bias. ('Everyone registered for the postpartum self-care course should bring his partner to the first class'?)
    "The tide has now turned, and the newer grammar books recommend using the plural pronoun after an indefinite subject: 'Everyone took their seat.'" (Amy Einsohn, The Copyeditor's Handbook. Univ. of California Press, 2000)

Pronoun Agreement With Collective Nouns

  • "A collective noun refers to a group of people, things, or animals. . . .
    "When used as an antecedent, a collective noun can take either a singular or a plural pronoun, depending on how the antecedent is being used. When the emphasis is on the group as a unit, use a singular pronoun. When the emphasis is on the individuals within the group, use a plural pronoun." (David Blakesley and Jeffrey Hoogeveen, The Thomson Handbook. Thomson Wadsworth, 2008)
  • The family took its name from the nearby village of Woolcott.
  • The royal family took their places in the carriage.

Correcting Errors in Person

  • "Because nouns are almost always in the third person, pronouns that refer to nouns should also be in the third person. Usually this rule poses no problem, but sometimes writers mistakenly shift from third to second person when they are referring to a noun:
    When a person first enters the Department of Motor Vehicles, you might feel overwhelmed by the crowd of people. In this sentence, you has been mistakenly used to refer to person. . . . There are two ways to correct the sentence:
    1. You can change the second-person pronoun you to a third-person pronoun.
    When a person first enters the Department of Motor Vehicles, he or she might feel overwhelmed by the crowd of people.
    2. You can change the noun person to the second-person pronoun you.
    When you first enter the Department of Motor Vehicles, you might feel overwhelmed by the crowd of people." (Stephen McDonald and William Salomone, The Writer's Response, 5th ed. Wadsworth, 2012)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Pronoun Agreement." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). Definition and Examples of Pronoun Agreement. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Pronoun Agreement." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).

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