Identifying Errors of Singular and Plural Pronouns

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  • 0:03 Pronoun Basics
  • 1:04 Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement
  • 3:16 Indefinite Pronouns
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Bonn

Amy has taught college and law school writing courses and has a master's degree in English and a law degree.

It's sometimes not completely clear at first whether a singular or plural pronoun is necessary in a sentence. This lesson covers those confusing situations and explains how to be sure that you're using the right pronoun.

Pronoun Basics

We use pronouns all the time in sentences. While you're likely familiar with a few common pronouns, it's important to remember that there are a few different types of pronouns, and they all have their own basic rules that you'll want to remember. One important skill to develop involves knowing when to use a singular or plural pronoun. We'll discuss some situations in which it takes a bit of work to determine whether a singular or plural pronoun is needed, so that you can be sure to get it right every time.

In case you've forgotten, a pronoun is a word that takes the place of or refers to a noun. A noun names a person, place, thing, or idea. As I noted earlier, we use pronouns all the time - they help us avoid repeating nouns over and over in our sentences. For example, rather than saying, My teacher explained my teacher's rules for writing essays for my teacher's class, you could say, My teacher explained her rules for writing essays for her class. In this sentence, we've used the possessive pronoun her twice to avoid excessive repetition of the possessive version of the noun teacher.

Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement

An antecedent is the word that a pronoun takes the place of or refers to in a sentence. So in the sentence Carla found an alligator under her bed, the pronoun is 'her' and the antecedent - the word that the pronoun refers back to - is the proper noun 'Carla.'

An important rule to remember is that a pronoun and its antecedent must agree in number. In other words, if you have a singular antecedent, you'll need a singular pronoun. Likewise, a plural antecedent must be matched with a plural pronoun. This makes sense. If you told me that Carla found an alligator under their bed, you'd be using a singular antecedent, 'Carla,' and a plural pronoun, 'their,' and I'd be wondering who 'their' referred to and what Carla was doing in their room.

Here's a quick rundown of singular and plural personal pronouns. Singular personal pronouns include I, you, he, she, and it; me, him, and her; and my, mine, his, her, hers, and its. Plural personal pronouns include we, you, and they; us and them; and our, ours, their and theirs.

One of the most common errors that people make when it comes to using a singular versus a plural pronoun is one that looks like this: A store manager should make sure that their customers are satisfied. On first glance, this may seem ok. But let's identify our pronoun and antecedent and see if they agree in number. Our pronoun is 'their,' which is a possessive plural pronoun. The antecedent to which our pronoun refers, though, is 'manager,' which is a singular noun. We know, therefore, that we have a pronoun error, and we need to consult our rule about singular and plural pronouns and antecedents.

This type of mistake with plural pronouns, especially the pronouns 'their' and 'they,' is really common. Always check your antecedent. Here, we can correct our pronoun by switching it from plural to singular: A store manager should make sure that his or her customers are satisfied. We could also correct our error by making both the pronoun and antecedent plural: Store managers should make sure that their customers are satisfied.

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