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Pronoun Agreement on ACT English: Tips and Practice

Posted by Alex Heimbach | Jun 22, 2015 4:00:00 PM

SAT Writing, ACT English



Pronoun agreement errors are an especially confusing type of ACT English question because people often misuse pronouns, especially when you speak. In fact, I just made a pronoun mistake: can you spot it?

Take a closer look at the second half of my first sentence: "people often misuse pronouns, especially when you speak." Who is "you" referring to here: "people." However, the correct pronoun for the third person plural is "they." The correct version of the sentence is "people often misuse pronouns, especially when they speak."

On the ACT English section, you'll be expected to spot these kind of errors in a variety of different contexts. I'll go over both the basic rules for pronouns and the common mistakes you'll see on the test, so that you can approach the test with confidence.

This post covers the following topics:

  • Pronouns and Antecedents
  • Disagreement in Number
  • Disagreement in Person
  • Unclear Antecedents
  • Spotting Pronoun Agreement Errors on the ACT

Feature image credit: Chiltepinster (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons 


A Pronoun Must Always Match Its Antecedent

That title might seem confusing. What's an antecedent? And what does it mean to "match"? You can probably spot when a pronoun doesn't seem quite right, but let's break down why. 


What's a Pronoun?

A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun—that's it! Usually we think of pronouns as words like I, him, they, or its, all of which are definitely pronouns. But so are words like everyone, which, and each. Any word that replaces a noun is a pronoun. For more detailed information on pronouns, take a look at our guide to parts of speech.


What's an Antecedent?

An antecedent is the noun a pronoun replaces. (You may also have heard these called referents.) Let's look at an example—the pronoun is in bold and the antecedent is underlined:

Anton wanted his own piece of cake.

Simple enough, right? "His" is standing in for "Anton's." Let's try a more complicated one:

Even though he knew Jenny loves sweets, Anton ate both their pieces of cake and didn't apologize to her.

There's a lot more going on in this sentence, so I've color coded the pronouns and their nouns. "Their" is purple because it's standing in for "Anton's and Jenny's."

No matter how many different pronouns there are in a sentence, each one must have a clear antecedent.


What Does It Mean for a Pronoun and Antecedent to Match?

Again, though this concept may sound confusing, it's actually pretty intuitive. Let's revisit our example from above, with a slight tweak:

Anton wanted their own piece of cake.

This sentence clearly isn't correct. That's because the pronoun "their" and the antecedent "Anton" don't agree. Anton is singular and their is plural, so the words disagree in number.

It's also possible for a pronoun and antecedent to disagree in person:

Anton wanted my own piece of cake.

Anton is a proper noun and should take a 3rd person pronoun, not a 1st person pronoun like "my." 

As a review, the most common pronouns and their correct uses are listed below:

  • I/me/my — first person singular, i.e. the person speaking
  • We/us/ours — first person plural, i.e. the person speaking and others
  • You/your — second person (singular and plural), i.e. the person (or people) being spoken to
  • He/him/his — third person masculine, i.e. a male person or animal who isn't present
  • She/her — third person feminine, i.e. a female person or animal who isn't present
  • It/its — third person neuter, i.e. inanimate objects
  • They/them/their — third person plural, i.e. multiple people or things 

The key idea here is that pronouns must always have a clear antecedent and agree with the noun that they replace. Now that we've established what that means, let's look at how these errors appear on the ACT English.



Anton was a jerk for eating both pieces of cake. (©jshj)


Pronoun Disagreement in Number

I mentioned above that plural nouns require plural pronouns and singular nouns require singular pronouns. Usually, that rule feels pretty obvious: it doesn't make much sense to refer to Jim as "them" or the Avengers as "it." However, we're talking about the ACT, so the errors are going to be a little harder to spot. Let's go over some of the trickiest cases and how you can catch them.


Distance Between Pronoun and Antecedent

In a simple sentence, it's easy to spot number agreement errors:

Incorrect: Clara is very protective of their novels.

Correct: Clara is very protective of her novels.

But in the context of a more complex sentence, or an entire paragraph, these errors get much harder to spot:

 When Clara ran out of fantasy novels to read, she went to the library to replenish her supply. Unfortunately, they were completely out of them.

At first glance, this may seem fine, but it gets a little wonky towards the end there. Let's take it apart and match each pronoun with its antecedent:

  • she = Clara
  • her = Clara's
  • they = the library
  • them = the novels

Do you see the problem? The library is singular and can't be referred to as "they." As such, the sentence should read:

When Clara ran out of fantasy novels to read, she went to the library to replenish her supply. Unfortunately, it was completely out of them.

When you're dealing with pronouns on the ACT, the first step is always to determine what its antecedent is. This will make it much easier to figure out the correct pronoun to use.


The Case of the Non-Gendered Singular Pronoun

Even once you determine a pronoun's antecedent, there's still room for confusion—especially when it comes to singular non-gendered nouns. Let's look at an example of this:

Please have your child bring their crayons to school with them.

Sounds fine, right? But take a closer look. "Their" is taking the place of "your child's" in this sentence, but "their" is a plural pronoun and "your friend" is only one person. 

Using "their" seems right because we the child could be a girl or boy and there is no singular non-gendered pronoun for people in English. However, you can't use 3rd person plural pronouns (they, their, theirs, or them) to refer to singular people of unclear gender. 

 Instead, you need to use singular pronouns, as in the version below:

Please have your child bring his or her crayons to school with him or her.

Although "he," "she," and "he or she" are all equally correct, on the ACT you will always see "he or she"/"him or her"/"his or her" used to refer to non-gendered singular people.


ACT English Practice Example

Let's work through an official ACT question, so you can see how these concepts work in context.

body_ACT_pna_ex1.png  body_ACT_pna_ex1b.png

Let's start by finding the antecedent. So what's covered? "Most kayaks," which is plural, so we immediately know A can't be correct.

The next step is eliminating distractors. Pronoun questions on the ACT can be tricky because the test writers tend to include answer choices that seem reasonable but couldn't possible work, confusing what the question is actually about. Here those choices are B and D: when used as a pronoun "one" refers to a person and "which" should come after a comma, not a period (it creates a dependent clause). 

This leaves only C, "They are," which is the right answer since "they" is the correct pronoun to stand in for "kayaks."



Use "he or she" to replace nouns like "guitarist" that aren't gender specific.


Pronoun Disagreement in Person

Pronoun agreement in person is a slightly weirder concept than agreement in number, but it's usually pretty easy to spot. The basic concept is that a pronoun must reflect the type of thing it's replacing. This fact means that you must use "it" to replace "the sour candy" but "she" to replace "Jennifer Lawrence." 

As with agreement in number, the first step is always to make sure that you know what a pronoun's antecedent is and that the pronoun and antecedent agree. Beyond that basic principle, avoiding issues with agreement in person is mostly a question of consistency—if you start a sentence in the first person, you shouldn't suddenly switch to the third person without a clear reason.

I was halfway home when I realized that he'd forgotten his science project.

This series of events might be possible, but it doesn't make much sense. Another incorrect sentence:

The plant grew so large that she no longer fit in the pot.

"She" is clearly standing in for "the plant," but you can't use "she" to refer to an inanimate object. The correct pronoun would be "it."

On the ACT, pronoun errors with agreement in person are usually related to consistency—if a passage is in the third person you can't inexplicably introduce the first person halfway through and vice versa. 

The most common such issue is with "one" and "you." Both are equally correct to refer to a non-specific individual—"you" is simply less formal than "one"—but a passage should stick to one or the other. (Like this article does!) 

 Let's look at how this concept works in a sentence:

Incorrect: If one wants to be a professional sushi chef, you must train for many years to master the art of slicing the fish.

Correct: If one wants to be a professional sushi chef, one must train for many years to master the art of slicing the fish.

Correct: If you want to be a professional sushi chef, you must train for many years to master the art of slicing the fish.

The incorrect sentence uses two different pronouns, while the corrected versions stick to one or the other.

One of the most common mistakes students make on the ACT English is assuming that the more formal choice, in this case "one," is necessarily better. However, it's far more important to be consistent with the passage as written and to make sure pronouns match their antecedents.

Let's go through an example question that deals with agreement in person:

body_ACTpnaex4.png body_ACTpnaex4b.png

First, we find the antecedent. Who or what is hearing the songs? Elsewhere in the paragraph, it's "I." Our primary goal with agreement in person is to remain consistent, so it should be the same here—F is the correct choice.

G and H might be tempting, but you shouldn't pick an answer that introduces a new pronoun without a clear antecedent. J can't be correct because it creates a sentence fragment.

A disagreement between people, not a disagreement in person. (©o5com)


Unclear Antecedents

We've covered the basic rules for ensuring that pronouns agree with their antecedents, but what do you do when a pronoun doesn't have an antecedent? It's important to remember that a pronoun's antecedent must be a noun and you must be able to circle it in the text. In other words, it's not enough for you to know what the pronoun is referring to, the antecedent also has to be obvious in the text. 

On the ACT English, pronouns without clear antecedents appear fairly frequently. You'll need to pick the answer that makes explicit what the pronoun is meant to refer to.

Let's look at an example:

In order to get the concert tickets from the box office, I need to know when they'll be there.

Who does "they" refer to? Presumably, the people who work in the box office, but the noun "employees" doesn't appear, so there's no clear antecedent. A correct version might read:

In order to get the concert tickets from the box office, I need to know when the employees will be there.

Now it's clear who I'm talking about.

The pronouns this, that, these, and those, often appear in questions like this and can be especially confusing, since in casual English we often use the them without clear antecedents:

Mario: Bowser kidnapped Peach again.

Luigi: That's annoying.

This construction may be fine in spoken English, but it would be absolutely incorrect on the ACT. Thought it's clear what Luigi is reacting to, there's no actual noun in the text that is serving as an antecedent for that.

This, that, and these and those must have clear noun antecedents, just like any other pronoun. However, it's fine for the noun to come immediately after the pronoun. A correct version of the above would be: 

Mario: Bowser kidnapped Peach again.

Luigi: That move is so annoying.

Now its explicit what's annoying: Bowser's move of kidnapping Peach.

If this, these or those are underlined, then the question is likely about this type of error. (That being underlined can mean there's an antecedent issue as well, but it's more commonly a relative pronoun question—for more on that type of error, see our post on the topic, coming soon.)

Let's look at an official ACT example:

body_ACTpnaex3.png body_ACTpnaex3b.png

As with any pronoun question, the first step here is to determine the antecedent. Since an antecedent must be a noun that appears in the text, our options are "Banneker," "his studies," and "the paths of the Sun, Moon, and other celestial bodies." However, none of these nouns are things that can be used to predict a solar eclipse—the sentence is trying to say that he used his calculations of the paths to make the prediction. The only answer that makes that fact clear is G. 




Applying the Pronoun Agreement Grammar Rules on the ACT

We've covered the basic rules for pronoun agreement and the types of errors you're likely to see on the ACT English. I've rounded up a summary of those rules and the key strategies you should practice for the test.

What to watch for:

  • Underlined pronouns and pronoun/verb combos
  • This, these, those underlined

Rules to keep in mind:

  • Every pronoun must have a clear noun antecedent.
  • Pronouns and their antecedents have to match in number, gender, and person.
  • For this, those, that, and these, the antecedent can come immediately after the pronoun.

Helpful ACT English tips:

  • Anytime a pronoun is underlined, the first step is to determine the antecedent—be sure to check the surrounding sentences as well.
  • "He or she" is the correct pronoun for non-gendered singular nouns.
  • Pronoun person generally stays consistent throughout a passage.
  • Replace antecedent-less pronouns with nouns.


Test Your Skills with ACT English Practice Questions!

You can study the rules all you want, but doing so won't help you on the ACT unless you practice using them ito answer ACT-style questions. I've created some ACT English practice so that you can try out your new skills!


1.  Lana didn't enjoy spying on Tim, but he had the information they needed.


B. he

C. the people

D. she

2.  You may not want to go looking for the cookbook, but to ensure there are pancakes at breakfast, one must find the recipe.


G. you must

H. they must

J. must 

3. One of the books was full of fairy tales, but Jenna couldn't find them on the shelf.


B. those

C. it

D. her own

2.  Troy walked all the way down the mountain. After that, he was too tired to stay awake through the movie.


G. After this,

H. After walking so far,

J. So that  

Answers: 1. D, 2. G, 3. C, 4. H


What's Next?

If you're struggling with pronoun questions, make sure you also understand pronoun case errors. You may also want to check out some of our other ACT grammar guides on frequently tested topics like subject-verb agreement and comma usage.

For more big-picture strategies, take a look at our posts on the best way to read the ACT English passage and the 5 key concepts you need to ace the ACT English.

Looking to build a study plan? Read our complete plan to studying for the ACT, review what the ACT English actually covers, and take a practice test (or five!).


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Alex Heimbach
About the Author

Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.

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