Updated August 2023
Making pronouns and antecedents match up in your sentences can be difficult, especially when you’re working with tricky words and phrases. Here’s a hard-and-fast rule of writing—pronouns and their antecedents must agree in three ways: gender, number, and person. Failure to do so will result in teeth gnashing and hair pulling.
A pronoun (he, she, it) replaces a noun. An antecedent is the word (or words) to which the pronoun refers.
Frank walked through the gate, and he flashed his badge to the guard.
In this sentence he refers to Frank. Frank flashed his badge. The gender is correct (unless Frank is a woman) and the number is correct—Frank is one person and he refers to a singular noun.
If the pronoun and antecedent don’t agree in person, you will have an awkward (and incorrect) sentence:
You have to flash one’s badge to the guard to be admitted.
You and one do not agree.
What if the pronoun refers to more than one antecedent?
The little boy popped Freddy in the mouth, and he began to cry.
It is reasonable to assume that Freddy is crying since he has been popped in the mouth. The context of the sentence makes this pretty clear. But as there is an element of ambiguity here, it is possible that the little boy hit Freddy and then felt remorse and began to cry. The author of this sentence could easily get away with the original construction, but to make it crystal clear:
The little boy popped Freddy in the mouth, and Freddy began to cry.
Overkill? Possibly, but there’s no room for misinterpretation.
If the context doesn’t make the meaning of the sentence clear, it’s time to revise.
The lion crept closer to the gazelle, and, suddenly, it leaped into the air.
Since both lion and gazelle could be it, we don’t know which animal leaped through the air. This sentence should be rewritten for clarity.
In general, it comes down to common sense. Be sure the pronoun refers directly to the noun. If the pronoun can refer to more than one antecedent, it’s best to rewrite to make sure there’s no room for misinterpretation. And if you’re not sure if your pronouns and antecedents agree, it may be time to call the Writer’s Relief proofreading team!