Posted On August 11, 2017 by Print This Post

Let’s Just Agree to Agree? Part 2—Pronouns and Antecedents—Ack!! with Nan Reinhardt

Bless Nan Reinhardt and her mad English skills. I’m so glad someone knows the rules of pronouns and antecedents! Read through and you will too!


Last time we breezed through subject/verb agreement, and I promise this one will be quick and dirty, just like before. This is stuff writers need to know, but remember you can always refer back to my Romance University posts if you decide not to clutter your memory with grammar stuff. I won’t be offended in the least.

So, here we go—hold tight. Pronouns are simply words that stand for or take the place of nouns. An antecedent is the word for which the pronoun stands. Yeah, I know . . . already kinda confusing. Let’s try an example:

Harry delivers his newspapers every morning.

Here’s how it breaks down: his is the pronoun, so can you guess which word is the antecedent? Right, it’s Harry! The pronoun his refers back to Harry. If we didn’t use the pronoun, the sentence would awkwardly read, Harry delivers Harry’s newspapers every morning. Sounds a little weird, n’est pas?

Pronouns are our friends, but we have to be careful that they always agree with their antecedents in both number and gender. So a singular pronoun—he, she, him, her, his, hers, it, its—wants a singular noun. Same is true for plural pronouns—they, them, theirs—plural nouns for them. (See what I just did there? Nouns is the antecedent for them. Easy stuff—we do it all the time without even thinking about it.)

Let’s try a few examples just so we’re all on the same agreement page in both number and gender, okay? Back to Harry and the newspapers:

Harry delivers his newspapers every morning. Antecedent Harry is a boy, so the pronoun we use is his; and there’s only one of him, so singular. Here another one: The orchestra members tuned their instruments. The antecedent, members, is plural and so is the pronoun their. No gender here because we assume the orchestra is made up of both men and women.

But what happens if we stick a phrase or clause between the subject and the verb? What happens to the pronoun if we say something like: The vase of flowers sits on its own special table. Ah-ha, so what’s the antecedent for the pronoun its? The noun we need to agree with is vase, not flowers as you might suspect.

However, we can do it that way, too. Try this: The flowers in the vase have their own peculiar scent. This time the pronoun/antecedent agreement is between flowers and their. So the key is, look for the subject of the sentence—that’s the trick to knowing what pronoun to use.

Okee dokee, buckle up, things are going to get a little bumpy, but I promise it’ll be pretty painless, and as you recall, there’s always ice cream later.

Often your antecedent is an indefinite pronoun. Words like each, either, anybody, something, neither, everybody, everything—those kinds of singular antecedents—used to get one of these, “his or hers” or “he or she” as the agreeing pronoun. However, times have changed and most style guides, including my personal style bible, The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition, are saying it’s fine to use the singular they in the interest of avoiding awkward structure. It’s fine to still use the he or she thing, but you don’t have to.

So singular indefinite antecedents might work like this now: Each of the editors has their own morning routine. The singular pronoun antecedent each agrees with the singular they pronoun.

However, plural indefinite pronoun antecedents, such as several, few, both, or many, will use a plural pronoun. Like this: Both packed apples in their lunchboxes. Both is the plural antecedent, while their is our plural pronoun. (Watch MS Word—it wants to change their to there inappropriately sometimes. Uh-oh!)

So here’s something that will really make you cringe: Some indefinite pronoun antecedents that are modified by a prepositional phrase may be either singular or plural. Those little buggers are some, any, none, all, and most. Here’s the deal with those. When the object of the preposition is uncountable, use a singular referent pronoun, so: Most of the sand fell out its bucket. No way to count sand, so singular its is the correct referring pronoun. Oh, and remember that the possessive form of it is its with no apostrophe; the apostrophe goes on the contraction for it is.

On the flip side, when the object of preposition is countable, use a plural referent pronoun, like this: Some of the pencils fell out of their wrapping. Pencils can be counted, so their is the plural referring pronoun. Count ’em—plural; can’t count ’em—singular. Easy, right? We’re so close to the end and ice cream! Just a couple more, okay?

Collective nouns, such as groups, juries, crowds, teams, etc., may be either singular or plural. For instance: The orchestra played its final number. Group = orchestra, the orchestra is acting as one unit, which makes it a collective noun, so the pronoun is singular, its.

But in the next example (it’s going to be familiar), things are little different: The orchestra tuned their instruments. You already know this one, right? The orchestra members are acting as individuals, so the pronoun is plural.

We’re nearly there, kids—hold tight!

Titles of books, movies, organizations, countries, etc. take singular referring pronouns, like this: France is proud of its cuisine.

Plural subjects with a singular meaning take singular referent pronouns: Measles leaves its victims itchy and red.

I think that’s enough for today, don’t you? Deep breath. You’ve earned your ice cream and so have I!


The Question


Bio: Nan Reinhardt has been a copyeditor and proofreader for over 25 years, and currently works on romantic fiction titles for a variety of clients, including Avon Books, St. Martin’s Press, Kensington Books, Tule Publishing, and Entangled Publishing, as well as for many indie authors.

Nan is also writer of romantic fiction for women in their prime. Yeah, women still fall in love and have sex, even after 45! Imagine! She is a wife, a mom, a mother-in-law, and a grandmother. She’s been an antiques dealer, a bank teller, a stay-at-home mom, a secretary, and for the last 21 years, she’s earned her living as a freelance copyeditor and proofreader.

But writing is Nan’s first and most enduring passion. She can’t remember a time in her life when she wasn’t writing—she wrote her first romance novel at the age of ten, a love story between the most sophisticated person she knew at the time, her older sister (who was in high school and had a driver’s license!), and a member of Herman’s Hermits. If you remember who they are, you are Nan’s audience! She’s still writing romance, but now from the viewpoint of a wiser, slightly rumpled, menopausal woman who believes that love never ages, women only grow more interesting, and everybody needs a little sexy romance.

Visit Nan’s website at, where you’ll find links to all her books as well as blogs about writing, being a Baby Boomer, and aging gracefully…mostly. Nan also blogs every Tuesday at Word Wranglers, sharing the spotlight with four other romance authors.

Twitter: @NanReinhardt
Talk to Nan at:

The Women of Willow Bay:
Carrie, whose life is turned upside down when the man she never got over suddenly reappears.
Julie, a widow who is learning to rebuild her life with the help of a sexy younger man.
Sophie, a freelance editor who discovers that friends also make great lovers…
And coming September 26, 2017:
Sarah, a victim of domestic abuse, who finds a safe haven in the arms of Willow Bay’s deputy sheriff.

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6 Responses to “Let’s Just Agree to Agree? Part 2—Pronouns and Antecedents—Ack!! with Nan Reinhardt”

  1. I’m beginning to see a LOT of books in which an author mentions several people of the same gender in one paragraph and then says something like, “She killed her.” This requires multiple re-readings to figure out who killed whom. Many times the situation is left ambiguous. We must wait for the story to progress to find out who did or said what to whom.

    Please remind authors to use clear antecedents!

    (PS: Jane Austen and I are big fans of the singular. “their.”)

    Posted by Carol Strickland | August 11, 2017, 8:15 am
  2. Morning Nan…

    I do a lot of that automatically..checking the antecedent/pronoun….I’ll say the sentence to myself while typing it, find the antecedent and pronoun then make sure they match.

    I just didn’t know that’s what they were called. =) Collective nouns tend to kill me though.

    Thanks for the great article Nan, I’m sure I’ll refer to it over and over again!


    Posted by Carrie Peters | August 11, 2017, 9:02 am
  3. Thanks, Carrie! Reading aloud is great way to get a feel for your agreement issues–I always read aloud, but especially when I’m just not sure I’ve got the correct pronoun–collectives are the worst! 😉

    Posted by Nan | August 11, 2017, 11:16 am
  4. This is one of those things I KNOW I should watch for, and usually I do – BUT sometimes I forget. Thanks for the reminder! It is so easy to get pulled out of a story because I don’t know which “he” or “she” the author is referring to in a particular scene. And once that happens, it’s hard to go back.

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | August 11, 2017, 12:20 pm

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