Noun-Pronoun Agreement Singular and Plural

In the parts of speech lesson, you learned that a pronoun replaces a noun. Sometimes a pronoun won’t have a noun that it refers to, like the “you” in the previous sentence. More often, though, a pronoun will have an antecedent: a noun that it’s replacing. In the following examples, the antecedent is bolded and the pronoun is underlined.

Example: Ariel is usually optimistic, but she’s very upset today.

Example: When they arrived  in Los Angeles, the Smiths had trouble clearing customs, so they were at the airport for four hours.

Singular Nouns and Pronouns

The first example sentence shows a singular noun and it’s corresponding singular pronoun. Singular means one.

Here are some singular nouns: banana, radio, Claire, harmonica

Here are some singular pronouns: I, you, she, its, this, himself, who

When you use a singular noun, you can only use a singular pronoun (not a plural one).

Example: Reginald wanted to try throwing the ball himself.

Example: The kitten is huge for its age.

Plural Nouns and Pronouns

As you might expect, when you use a plural noun, you can only use a plural pronoun (not a singular one). Plural means more than one.

Here are some plural nouns: cars, dandelions, cookies, tweets

Here are some plural pronouns: they, us, you, those, who

Example: The tightrope walkers were up so high that I was afraid they would fall.

Example: Jack’s friends, who also play is his band, were at the party.

Is “They” Okay?

English has three third-person singular pronouns: he for males, she for females, and it for things. What English doesn’t have is a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. Consider the following two sentences.

Example: Nadia lost her keys at the store today.

Example: Someone lost ___ keys at the store today.

The first sentence is correct because “Nadia” and “her” agree in number (singular) and gender (feminine). But what should replace the blank space in the second sentence? Here are some options:

  • Someone lost their keys at the store today. (“Someone” is singular and “their” is plural, so this sentence breaks the rules that we just learned, but it is acceptable in colloquial English.)
  • Someone lost his or her keys at the store today. (This version is grammatically correct, but it’s clunky, especially if you use it repetitively.)
  • Someone lost his keys at the store today. (“His” was traditionally used as a generic third-person pronoun, but this usage is now considered sexist. Some writers alternate between using he and using she, but such variation can be confusing for the reader.)
  • Someone lost a pair of keys at the store today. (This version doesn’t use a pronoun at all, so it is a great solution.)

Which option should you pick? First, rewrite to see if you can eliminate the pronoun. If rewriting doesn’t work, consider the tone of your writing.

Is it formal, academic, or serious?

Using a variation of he and she is probably your best option, since it’s grammatically correct. Or is your writing informal and conversational?

In that case, using “they” is probably fine, since it’s widely used as a singular pronoun informal speech. Also ask your client if they (!) prefer “they” or “s/he”.

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