Subject-Pronoun Agreement: How to Get It Right

Subject-pronoun agreement is an issue all authors must deal with when they write. Failure to make your subject agree with your pronouns results in a poorly written book and a clear sign that the author is not skilled in the English language. Writers who struggle with subject-pronoun agreement can learn a few rules to rewrite their sentences so they are grammatically correct and yet do not sound awkward.

When an author writes a book, they need to know how to make their characters be referred to properly. In case you didn’t notice, that last sentence in itself has improper agreement between the subject and pronoun. Because “author” is singular, the pronouns “they” and “their” should respectively be “he” and “his” (or “she” and “her”) to agree with it.

I see subject-pronoun agreement issues in books all the time. Partly, I think many people don’t know any better, and partly, it’s because people fear sounding sexist if they only use “he” or “his.” They also realize “he or she” and “his or her” is a mouthful, so they turn to using “they,” “their,” and “them.” There’s nothing wrong with using these plural rather than singular pronouns, but when they are used, the subject must also be made plural so there is agreement between them.

Let’s look at a couple of examples and options for creating correct and “agreeable” sentences that do not sound awkward:

Doctors know they should not prescribe their patients drugs without talking to them about the reasons behind their symptoms.

This sentence is perfectly fine. The subject “Doctors” is plural, and the four pronouns (they, their, them, and their) are also all plural. But what if we wanted to talk about one specific doctor?

The doctor knows he or she should not prescribe his or her patient drugs without talking to him or her about the reasons behind his or her symptoms.

What a mouthful. This sentence is completely correct, but very hard to read. The author is trying to show that both the doctor and the patient could be male or female, but the result is an awkward sentence whose meaning is hard to comprehend. In this case, it’s best, if you don’t know the sex of the doctor or patient, to settle on one pronoun, and “he” has been the standard one until the feminist movement made the use of “she” popular. You could actually use either and write:

The doctor knows he should not prescribe his patient drugs without talking to him about the reasons behind his symptoms.

Or, consider that a female doctor may treat a male patient, in which case the sentence would read:

The doctor knows she should not prescribe her patient drugs without talking to him about the reasons behind his symptoms.

Even so, the first example where everything is plural is probably the best choice for the sake of clarity.

At times, you may have a group of people (plural subject) where you know the group members are all the same sex, such as:

As a member of the Boy Scouts, he was allowed to participate in the trip.

In this case, we can assume a member of the Boy Scouts will be a boy, so “he” is appropriate. But how about in this next sentence:

The average rape victim does not come forward to admit she was raped.

In this case, “she” is fairly appropriate, but we know boys can also be raped. You may want to put a disclaimer at the beginning of the book or a footnote, just simply stating, “In this book, I will refer to rape victims as ‘she’ for the sake of ease, and because, while I know men also experience rape, I am discussing female rape victims as my subject.”

In other words, you want to use good sense and the appropriate pronoun, and while you could make this sentence’s subject and pronouns plural, it’s unlikely you could do so with every sentence in the book.

One last tip when it comes to using both “he and she” is that these pronouns are relatively small and not so awkward sounding, but what about a sentence like:

It is advisable that every boy and girl makes sure he or she buys for himself or herself a swimming suit before going to summer camp.

Of course, the logical way to reword this sentence is:

All children are advised to buy themselves swimming suits before going to summer camp.

You could even remove “themselves” or go back to the first version and say:

It is advisable that every boy and girl make sure to buy a swimming suit before going to summer camp.

After all, there’s no reason to use a pronoun if it’s not needed. Subject-pronoun agreement errors and wordiness are equally detrimental to getting across your meaning if you want your writing to be effective.

But if you do want to use singular pronouns, you might want to try out “him- or herself” instead of “himself or herself.” That little hyphen makes it clear both words are using the same ending “self” and it’s a bit more readable.

Finally, what about those pesky subjects we think should be plural but are really singular. Even people who know how to use “he” and “she” get confused when they deal with nouns like “board,” “group,” or “organization.”

For example:

The school board decided they would adjourn the meeting.

The school board is actually singular even though it is composed of several people. You can solve this agreement issue in two ways.

  1. The formal way: The school board decided it would adjourn the meeting.
  2. The more human way: The school board members decided they would adjourn the meeting.

Personally, I have a hard time thinking of a board, group, or association as “it.” It sounds rather “big brother-ish” to me, so inserting “members” before or after such words will allow you to use a pronoun like “they” that doesn’t reduce people to “it.” Another example where “members” might be inserted at the beginning is:

Congress made its way to Capitol Hill.

The members of Congress made their ways to Capitol Hill.

Proper pronoun use depends on whether the subject is singular or plural and the pronoun being made to agree in number with that subject. Beyond being grammatically correct, by taking into consideration the sex of the person who is the subject, and retaining a human feel to the sentence, writers can make sentences feel less formal and less awkward so their messages are conveyed accurately and smoothly.

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.