Basic Noun-Pronoun Agreement
Nouns and their pronouns make another set of teammates who must agree not only on the direction in which they are going to run, but on the type of play they are going to use to score a point. That is, they need to agree on two things:
- Number (singular/one or plural/more than one)
- Gender (male, female, neutral)
For example, the following sentences do not make sense since the pronouns do not agree with their nouns in number (1st sentence) or gender (2nd sentence):
- Elvis sightings have occurred more abundantly in the last two years; he has been occurring at the rate of ten per month.
- I know a woman who likes Elvis Presley's music so much, he trained her dog (named Elvis) to thump her tail and bark in rhythm to all of its tapes.
The sentences do make sense when the pronoun gender and number is straightened out:
- Elvis sightings have occurred more abundantly in the last two years; they have been occurring at the rate of ten per month.
- ("Sightings" is the noun to which the pronoun refers; it is plural and thus requires the plural pronoun "they" to make sense. Note that the verb changes as well since verbs have to agree with their nouns [or pronouns].)
- I know a woman who likes Elvis Presley's music so much, she trained her dog (named Elvis) to thump his tail and bark in rhythm to all of her tapes.
- ("Woman" is a feminine noun, so it requires the feminine pronoun "her." You can assume, because of its name, that the dog is male, so it would be more correct to say "his" tail. If you don't know the dog's gender, you could say "its" tail. Yet "its" does not make sense when referring to the tapes, since the neutral pronoun "its" implies that the tapes belong to the dog. So you could say "her tapes," to show that they belong to the woman, or "his tapes" to refer to the tapes of Elvis' singing.)
It's simple, right? Yet there are two major stumbling blocks with noun-pronoun agreement:
Pronoun Agreement with “Trick Singular” Nouns and Pronouns
- Monday is the day when each department head in Marketing activates his or her voice mail; it's all-day meeting day.
- Everybody who hears little Loretta sing has his or her own way of telling her parents that she is so expressive, she would make a good mime.
You know that "each department head" and "everybody" do actually refer to more than one person, but they function as singular nouns because of their wording--they contain special words such as "each" and "every" that make them act as singular nouns, thus requiring singular pronouns. Sometimes, you can avoid an awkward-sounding singular pronoun by rewriting the sentence by using a simple plural noun and pronoun. For example:
Monday is the day when the department heads in Marketing activate their voice mail; it's all-day meeting day. The following words make a noun or pronoun singular:
- anybody.....every.....no one.....someone
You need to use singular pronoun forms with these words. So if the trick singular refers to a group of mixed gender, you need to use "he or she" or "his or her" in order to be correct. ("They"--moving from singular to plural--is incorrect here.)
Pronoun Reference to Nouns
- William said that John said that he had won the bingo game's biggest prize. (Who is the "he" William or John?)
- William is a congenital liar. The most recent problem we had with William was when he denied knocking the ladder into the staircase and cracking it. (What cracked, the ladder or the staircase?)
- I also know that last year, when we had the rash of petty thievery, when William had the cash flow problem, and when he was visiting us, he picked up the crystal paperweight, played with the silver letter opener, and then put it into his pocket. (What did William steal, the paperweight or the letter opener?)
In cases such as these, you need to clarify the sentence by using a noun instead of a pronoun. Remember, never substitute a pronoun for a noun if the person, place, or thing to which the pronoun refers is unclear.