Sunday, January 12, 2014

Notes on on Pronoun Agreement

The indefinite pronouns anyone, anybody, everyone, everybody, someone, somebody, no one, and nobody are always singular. This is sometimes perplexing to writers who feel that everyone and everybody (especially) are referring to more than one person. The same is true of either and neither, which are always singular even though they seem to be referring to two things.

The need for pronoun-antecedent agreement can create gender problems. If one were to write, for instance, "A student must see his counselor before the end of the semester," when there are female students about, nothing but grief will follow. One can pluralize, in this situation, to avoid the problem:
                      Students must see their counselor before the end of the semester.
                 Or, one could say
                      A student must see his or her counselor. . . .

Too many his's and her's eventually become annoying, however, and the reader becomes more aware of the writer trying to be conscious of good form than he or she is of the matter at hand. Remember that when we compound a pronoun with something else, we don't want to change its form.

Following this rule carefully often creates something that "doesn't sound good." You would write, "This money is for me," so when someone else becomes involved, don't write, "This money is for Fred and I." Try these:
                    This money is for him and me.
                    This arrangement is between Fred and him.
                    Those are both good sentences.

One of the most frequently asked questions about grammar is about choosing between the various forms of the pronoun who: who, whose, whom, whoever, whomever. The number (singular or plural) of the pronoun (and its accompanying verbs) is determined by what the pronoun refers to; it can refer to a singular person or a group of people:

                     The person who hit my car should have to pay to fix the damages.
                     The people who have been standing in line the longest should get in first.

It might be useful to compare the forms of who to the forms of the pronouns he and they. Their forms are similar:


To choose correctly among the forms of who, re-phrase the sentence so you choose between he and him. If you want him, write whom; if you want he, write who.

Who do you think is responsible? (Do you think he is responsible?)
Whom shall we ask to the party? (Shall we ask him to the party?)
Give the box to whomever you please. (Give the box to him.)
Give the box to whoever seems to want it most. (He seems to want it most. [And then the clause "whoever seems to want it most" is the object of the preposition "to."])
Whoever shows up first will win the prize. (He shows up first.)

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