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Personal Pronouns and Antecedents: Number Agreement

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  • 0:06 What Is an Antecedent?
  • 1:39 Number Agreement
  • 4:55 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.

In this lesson, you'll learn how to avoid one of the most common grammatical mistakes in writing by learning how to ensure that all of the antecedents in your writing agree in number with the pronouns that they're matched up with.

What Is an Antecedent?

In this lesson, we'll be talking about antecedents. You may be thinking that you remember learning about that word before, but can't really remember quite what it means. Or you may be thinking that you know that you've definitely never heard it before. That's not a problem. Antecedent is a fancy word for a very simple concept.

To understand antecedents, we'll first have to remind ourselves what pronouns are. A pronoun is a word that takes the place of or refers to a noun. You likely remember that a noun is a word that names a person, place, thing, or idea. There are several different types of pronouns. A personal pronoun is one that refers to or takes the place of a particular person or thing. Examples of personal pronouns include 'he,' 'she,' 'them,' 'us,' 'mine,' and 'our.'

Pronouns are very useful, because they help us avoid repeating nouns over and over throughout sentences. For example, I wouldn't have to say, 'Joe broke Joe's foot playing football, and Joe isn't sure when Joe will be able to play again.' Instead, I can use personal pronouns to say, 'Joe broke his foot playing football, and he isn't sure when he will be able to play again.'

Here's another example. I might say, 'I spoke to my child's teacher, and she seemed pretty mad.' Try to spot the pronoun in this sentence. It's the word 'she,' and it takes the place of the word 'teacher' in the sentence.

In grammar, there's a special term that we use for nouns like 'teacher' in this sentence. The word 'teacher' here is an antecedent, which is the word that a pronoun takes the place of or refers to.

Number Agreement

There are a few things that you'll need to keep in mind when you're dealing with pronouns and antecedents. First, always be sure that, if you've used a pronoun, there's an antecedent nearby that clearly matches up with it. Next, each pronoun and its antecedent must agree in number.

In other words, if you've used a singular antecedent, it must be paired with a singular pronoun. Remember that singular means just one. For example, you would say, 'The cat stirred, but it did not wake up.' Here, the singular noun 'cat' is our antecedent, and it's correctly paired with the singular personal pronoun 'it.'

Similarly, if you've used a plural antecedent, it must be paired with a plural pronoun. (Remember that plural means more than one.) For example, you would say, 'The cats stirred, but they did not wake up.' In this example, the plural noun 'cats' is our antecedent, and it's correctly paired with the singular personal pronoun 'they.'

That seems simple enough. So, where do the common mistakes come in? Believe it or not, one of the most common grammatical mistakes that people make when writing and speaking involves not making pronouns and antecedents agree in number. Take a look at this sentence: 'A good teacher will make sure that all of their students understand the material.' Do you see any mistakes? First, let's locate the personal pronoun in this sentence. It's the possessive pronoun 'their.' Now, let's figure out the antecedent that the pronoun 'their' refers to. It's the noun 'teacher.'

The pronoun 'their' is a plural possessive pronoun. We use it when we want to show that more than one person owns something. What about the word 'teacher?' Is it singular or plural? It's a singular noun. Therefore, even though the sentence, 'A good teacher will make sure that all of their students understand the material,' might seem all right at first, upon closer analysis we can see that there is in fact a problem, because we've paired a singular antecedent - 'teacher' - with a plural pronoun - 'their.'

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