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Grammar Bite: Agreeing Pronouns

Subject and Object Pronoun Chart

Time for a pop quiz! In the following sentence, what is the antecedent for the pronoun which?

Chicago stretches along the shore of Lake Michigan, which makes a beautiful shore drive possible.

The sentence has a problem with pronoun–antecedent agreement: which is vague; its antecedent (the noun the pronoun stands for) is unclear. Today, we’ll review some basics of pronoun–antecedent agreement and find out why agreement is so important.

As with subject-verb agreement, the basics of pronoun-antecedent agreement are simple:

  • Make the pronoun’s antecedent clear.
  • Keep the pronoun’s person consistent.
  • Make the antecedent and pronoun agree in number.

But even these basic rules throw some curve balls at us. Let’s take a look.

Make the Pronoun’s Antecedent Clear

If you follow a strict grammar, the quiz sentence above breaks the first rule. What does which stand for? Is it the shore of Lake Michigan that makes the drive possible? Chicago? No, it’s the fact that Chicago lies along the shore that makes the drive possible. For some readers, the pronoun which standing for the entire preceding clause will be ambiguous.

Which, perhaps, is the trickiest pronoun to use this way, and the one about which there’s the most disagreement,” says Linda Lowenthal, former columnist for Copyediting, offering examples from language experts on both sides of the argument. In general, she favors pronouns, including which, being able to stand for clauses. She concludes, though, that “even its defenders … point out that a which referring to a clause can be ambiguous, especially when it follows a noun that it could be taken to refer to instead.”

In short: don’t make your readers guess; define that pronoun clearly.

Keep the Pronoun’s Person Consistent

If you use the second person pronoun in the beginning of your sentence, one shouldn’t switch to the third person pronoun in the second half of one’s sentence. See what I did there? I moved from you to one. The reader is left to ask, “Who are you talking about?” In The Copyeditor’s Handbook, Amy Einsohn notes, however, that if you start a sentence with one, you can switch to he or she to avoid “an endless train of ones”:

One is entitled to do as one likes as long as one does not betray one’s promises.
One is entitled to do as he likes as long as he does not betray his promises.

Note that such a switch isn’t a switch of person. And really, you can recast the sentence to avoid not only this problem but also of choosing a gendered pronoun:

We are entitled to do as we like as long as we do not betray our promises.

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Make the Antecedent and Pronoun Agree in Number

Create a matching set with antecedents and pronouns. Use a singular noun with a singular pronoun, a plural pronoun for a plural noun, and a possessive pronoun for a possessive noun. Seems simple enough:

Melanie ran her car over the lawn.
The company noticed that it was losing employees quickly.
You and I should go out to dinner; we would have a good time.
The book’s cover is torn, but its pages are fine.

But what about this sentence from a past Copyediting grammar contest:

Macbeth’s mind was constantly imagining horrible things, and that frightened him.

If we’re creating a matched set, we want to pair the singular pronoun him with a singular noun, in particular a male. But grammatically there isn’t a noun in the sentence that works. Things is plural. Mind is singular, but it’s not a person. Macbeth’s is a possessive noun.

Logically, him refers to Macbeth, an implicit antecedent rather than an explicit one.

Strictly speaking, that’s a no-no. In general, antecedents are supposed to be nouns, not adjectives, and possessives are adjectives. Says Barbara Wallraff in her Word Court: “Most pronouns ought to have antecedents that are real, honest-to-goodness nouns, not noun-adjectives or possessives.” She offers this example:

A wine’s bouquet is sometimes more appealing than it is.

If the antecedent must be a noun, then this sentence says that the bouquet is more appealing than the bouquet. Clearly that’s not right, so the only other option for an antecedent is wine’s; wine isn’t present in the sentence. The bouquet is more appealing than the wine’s what? Again, we’re dealing with an implicit antecedent. Wallraff offers this rewrite:

A wine’s bouquet is sometimes more appealing than its flavor.

Now we’ve got a possessive antecedent–wine’s–paired with a possessive pronoun–its. The wine’s bouquet is more appealing than the wine’s flavor. No ambiguity there.

Yet you probably weren’t confused by the original, unless you thought too much about it. Try these sentences from The Gregg Reference Manual (GRM) and Garner’s Modern English Usage (Garner’s):

Malcolm’s comments indicate that he doesn’t really understand the situation.
Mr. Blain’s background qualified him for the job.
Does Harriet’s boss know that she is looking for another job?

Did you understand that in the first sentence he refers to Malcolm and that in the second him refers to Mr. Blain? I’ll bet, too, that you knew that Harriet was the one looking for another job and not her boss. Most readers would understand it, argue GRM and Garner’s. Logic allows readers to realize the implicit antecedent rather than look for an explicit one.

Yet I think the Macbeth sentence reads better with a stricter pairing of antecedent and pronoun:

Macbeth was constantly imagining horrible things, and that frightened him.

Instead of Macbeth being a step removed from the action, we’re putting him right in the middle of it. It’s easier to envision Macbeth himself rather than his mind.

Demanding that a pronoun have an explicit antecedent and not allowing something like the Macbeth sentence is a strict interpretation of grammar. It’s a correct interpretation, but if you don’t follow the rule, you’re not wrong either. There may be times when you want to use stricter grammar rules. In this case, I prefer the stricter rule. In the words of Walt Whitman:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)


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