By Irina Ghazazyan
Although we all know that the pronoun must agree in number, person, and gender with the noun preceding it, the agreement is not always as straightforward as it might seem. Let’s consider the following examples to clarify some of the ambiguities associated with noun-pronoun agreement.
Agreement in Number
‘Everyone is responsible for their own welfare’ is incorrect: the pronouns ‘everyone’ and ‘everybody’, ‘anyone’ and ‘anybody’, ‘someone’ and ‘somebody’, and ‘no one’ and ‘nobody’ are all singular.
Thus the pronouns that refer to these words in a sentence must be singular too. Therefore the example should be ‘Everyone is responsible for his or her own welfare’.
Errors of agreement with ‘everyone’ and ‘everybody’, ‘anyone’ and ‘anybody’, ‘someone’ and ‘somebody’, and ‘no one’ and ‘nobody’ are exceedingly common among not only English learners but native speakers as well. You might wonder why?
The first reason is that ‘everyone’ and ‘everybody’ actually are plural in meaning—they mean all people in the group referred to. The second reason that errors with these pronouns are common is that a singular pronoun which follows must be either masculine or feminine, and many people are now reluctant to use a masculine pronoun to indicate either sex, but at the same time are reluctant to use the cumbersome ‘his or her’, ‘he or she’, and ‘him or her’. Thus plural pronouns seem a convenient solution even in contexts that must be singular in meaning, e.g. ‘Someone seems to have left their report in my office’.
It will be convenient if ‘their’, ‘they’, and ‘them’ are someday accepted as correct with singular preceding nouns of unspecified sex. Note that some authorities, do now accept them as correct (It would be much easier to accept ‘everybody’ and the other pronouns as plurals if they did not take singular verbs).
‘Any’, ‘none’, and such combinations of pronouns as ‘Any of them’ and ‘none of you’ are primarily singular; they mean ‘any one’, ‘not one’, ‘any one of them’, ‘not one of them’, and so on.
But they can be clearly plural in meaning; ‘any’ can mean ‘any ones’ as well as ‘any one’, and ‘none’ can mean ‘not any’, ‘not any ones’, as well as ‘not one’. Hence the example ‘None of the citizens vote as often as they are supposed to’ where both the verb and the pronoun are plural, is correct. As is often the case in such sentences, the pronoun ‘they’ has a plural noun – ‘citizens’, but the plural pronoun is also correct in ‘None vote as often as they are supposed to’. If ‘none’ is allowed a plural verb, it must certainly be allowed a plural pronoun.
Agreement in Person
In the example ‘Neither of us votes as often as we should’, the third-person pronoun combination ‘Neither of us’ correctly takes a singular verb. However, ‘Each of us cast our ballot’ is incorrect. ‘Each of us’ means ‘Each one of us’, and the subject is the implicit third-person pronoun ‘one’, and thus ‘our’ disagrees with the subject in both person and number. It should be ‘Each of us cast his or her ballot’, but ‘We each cast our ballot’ is correct; here ‘each’ is not the subject but merely modifies the subject – ‘We’.
Agreement with Pronouns
Let’s consider the example ‘You are the one who wasn’t honest with yourself’, this sentence, which might not sound unusual, is still incorrect. The reflexive pronoun ‘yourself’ is preceded by ‘who’, therefore the pronoun should be ‘himself’ or ‘herself’, to agree in person with ‘one’. I agree it is difficult to avoid all such errors in spoken language, because the emphasized ‘You’ at the beginning of the sentence quite obviously attracts the reflexive pronoun ‘yourself’, however the attraction should be resisted.
Agreement in Case
In the sentence ‘The car is really my wife’s, who dented the fender’ is nevertheless an error. A noun or a pronoun in the possessive case is usually functioning as an adjective, thus it cannot precede a pronoun. There are, however, some situations in which a possessive noun or a pronoun is not just an adjective and can precede a pronoun, e.g. ‘Let’s take my car, not my wife’s, which has a dented fender’ is correct, here ‘my wife’s’ is an independent possessive which can behave like a noun.