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Common Pronoun Errors

Pronouns replace nouns, so without pronouns, your writing might sound a little repetitive. Here are a few common errors to watch out for with pronouns.

1. Plural Pronoun – used to refer to more than one person at a time

E.g., “There was a large group in the restaurant today, and they all had big appetites!”

E.g., “My friends have been so supportive, I want to do something to thank them.”

E.g., “I really admire Jasmine and Clarence’s relationship because of their excellent communication.”

2. Gender Neutral Pronoun

2a. Gender Unknown – used to refer to someone whose gender you don’t know

E.g., “A customer came into the store earlier today, but I can’t remember what they bought.”

E.g., “I’m not sure what pronouns Jessica uses. I will ask them tomorrow.”

E.g., “Someone left their backpack on the bus.”

2b. They/Them Pronouns Indicated – used to refer to anyone that indicates that they use they/them pronouns

E.g. “Charles told me yesterday that they are using they/them pronouns now.”

E.g. “Charles will be joining us for coffee. Can you ask them what time works?”

E.g. “Charles told me that their husband will be coming to the party as well.”

Note: Anyone can use they/them pronouns. It is common for non-binary, genderqueer and genderfluid people to use they/them pronouns, but not all people who identify in these ways use they/them pronouns, and many use multiple sets of pronouns (e.g., she/they or they/he or she/he/they). And some people who identify as a man or a woman may use gender-neutral pronouns. It’s usually best not to assume but to ask/research and find out.

2c. Gender Irrelevant – used to refer to an individual or group when gender is not relevant to the meaning of the sentence

E.g., "A doctor needs to go to medical school before they become licensed."

E.g., “If you don’t know someone’s pronouns, you can ask them.”

E.g., “Students are responsible for their own learning.”

Note: In formal writing using gender neutral pronouns is typically preferred to using combined pronouns such as “she/he” or “his or hers”. E.g., "A doctor needs to go to medical school before he or she becomes licensed" used to be a common phrasing but is not typically preferred now.

3. Plural Demonstrative Pronouns/Adjectives – used in combination with “these” and “those” to refer to a set of things, e.g., objects, items, ideas, etc.

E.g., “I can’t see those books at the top. Can you tell me what colour they are?”

E.g., “I need those books. Can you hand them to me?”

E.g., “These books look quite old. Can you tell me what their publication dates are?”

The antecedent is the noun or pronoun your new pronoun has replaced. When you use a pronoun, it must agree with its antecedent in

  1. number (plural or singular)
  2. gender (masculine, feminine, generic), and
  3. person (human or nonhuman)
With that being said, when discussing human antecedents avoid gendered bias and always use a person's self-identified pronouns:
  • Use "they" as a generic third-person singular pronoun when referring back to a person whose gender is not known or if gender is not relevant in the text.
  • Use the traditional plural verb conjugation with the singular they (they are vs. they is).
  • Avoid "he" or "she" as generic pronouns because these two pronouns both convey gendered meaning about the antecedant.
  • Avoid combos like s/he or she/he if you are trying to be generic or gender neutral. Instead, use they.
For more on using the singular "they" see the APA style manual.
Example with Correct Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement Pronoun Antecedent
The tree extended its roots.

its (singular, generic, nonhuman)

tree (singular, generic, nonhuman)
Elliot Page, my favourite Canadian celebrity, starred in a new show, and their acting was amazing.

their (singular, generic, human)

Elliot Page (singular, uses he/they pronouns, human) In 2020, Elliot Page specified their pronouns as he/they after announcing that they are both transgender and nonbinary.

In other cases, it can be more difficult to decide on the correct pronoun.

Example of a Pronoun-Antecedent Error Pronoun Antecedent
A nurse should consider the needs of her patients. her (female) nurse (generic)

Not all nurses are female. This sentence could be made more inclusive as

  • A nurse should consider the needs of their patients. (they/their can be singular, it is generic, and used for humans)

Pronouns also need to have a clear antecedent. However, sometimes a sentence seems to have two possible antecedents. If this is the case, rewrite the sentence. Take a look at the following incorrect sentence that has an unclear pronoun reference:

Example Pronoun Antecedent
After Japan's forward Mina Tanaka collided with Canada's keeper Stephanie Labbé, she had to go to the hospital. she unclear (Who went to hospital? Tanaka or Labbé?)

Since it is unclear who had to go to the hospital, the sentence should be rewritten:

  • After Japan's forward Mina Tanaka and Canada's keeper Stephanie Labbé collided, Labbé had to go to the hospital.
  • Canada's keeper Stephanie Labbé had to go to the hospital after Japan's forward Mina Tanaka collided with her.

Vague Pronouns
There has to be a noun or pronoun within the sentence that can act as an antecedent. The pronouns it, this, that, and which can lead to a vague pronoun reference when they refer to something mentioned earlier in a different sentence:

Example Pronoun Antecedent
When the race organizers realized there was construction on the main street, they changed the route. It created chaos on race day. it vague (What created chaos? The construction or the changed route?)

In the above example, the pronoun "It" in the second sentence is vague because it has no antecedent. However, there are possible antecedents in the first sentence. To fix the sentence, replace the pronoun:

  • When the race organizers realized there was construction on the main street, they changed the route. This change created chaos on race day.

Implied Pronouns
Another situation to watch out for is implied pronouns. Remember, the antecedent needs to be present in the sentence. Here's an example of a sentence with no antecedent for the pronoun:

Example Pronoun Antecedent
Since the weather forecast is routinely wrong, people often get frustrated with them. them implied (Who do people get frustrated with? Meterologists)

The sentence needs to be rewritten by replacing the pronoun with a noun:

  • Since the weather forecast is routinely wrong, people often get frustrated with meteorologists.