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Antecedents - Number and Gender

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Pronoun Agreement

You must use a plural pronoun to refer to a plural noun, a singular pronoun to refer to a singular noun. This rule is called agreement in number. Thus:

The young women pursued their career goals.

That’s easy, and few people make the mistake of using a singular pronoun to refer to a plural antecedent. Few if any people would write:

The young women pursued her career goals.

At least not any people I know.

But a lot of people I know do make the opposite mistake. They use a plural pronoun to refer to a singular antecedent. Fact is, almost everybody makes this mistake. As a matter of fact, you, dear reader, make this mistake. You might deny it vehemently, but I would wager any amount that you make this mistake at least several times each day. As a matter of fact, so many people use they-their-them to refer back to singular antecedents that the usage will one day be regarded as correct. I don’t think we’re there just yet, at least not in formal writing.

We are there in speech, however. After all, if an editor of an internationally known publishing company uses the plural they to refer back to the singular word person, we can probably predict where the language is going:

What is happening is that the younger the person, the more likely they are to turn to an online place for reference. “Dueling Dictionaries,” The Washington Post, June 28, 2001, p. C4, col. 5.

 

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