Friday, October 29, 2010

Editing Tip #50: Pronouns & Antecedents

Kathy Ide’s Editing Tips
© Kathy Ide, 2010

In this column, freelance author, editor, and speaker Kathy Ide shares tips on self-editing your manuscript.


A pronoun (I, me, mine, myself, he, she, him, her, his, hers, himself, herself, we, us, our, ours, ourselves, who, whose, etc.) refers to something earlier in the text. The word for which the pronoun stands is called its antecedent. The antecedent may occur in the same sentence or in a previous sentence. For example: “The boy threw the football. He threw it over the fence.” Boy is the antecedent for he, and football is the antecedent for it.

1. A pronoun must agree in number—singular/plural—with the thing to which it refers.

2. Avoid ambiguity. If you write, “They say caffeine is bad for you,” make sure you have identified, immediately prior to this sentence, who “they” and “you” are.

3. Don’t allow too much space between the pronoun and its antecedent. If you refer to Joe in the first sentence of a paragraph, and use him to refer to Joe throughout that paragraph, and Joe is the only male in that paragraph, there should be no problem. But if there are two males in the paragraph, or if you’ve written several sentences since you used Joe’s name, find a good place to use the noun again.

4. The indefinite pronouns anyone, anybody, everyone, everybody, someone, somebody, no one, and nobody are singular. The same is true of either and neither.

5. Their is a plural pronoun. Don’t use it to refer to a singular noun. For example: “Someone left their gym bag on the floor” should be “Someone left his gym bag on the floor.” (Exception: If you are writing dialogue, fictional or true characters may speak with improper grammar.)

6. The need for pronoun-antecedent agreement can sometimes create gender problems. If you write, “A student must see his counselor before the end of the semester,” female students may feel left out. Using “his or her” in multiple instances can get wordy. An alternative is to pluralize. For example: “Students must see their counselors before the end of the semester.” (Note: Unless all students will see only one counselor, pluralize counselor.)

7. When you compound a pronoun with another person’s name, following proper rules of grammar may create something that “doesn’t sound good.” For example, “This food is for Fred and I” may sound right, but it’s not. You wouldn’t say, “This food is for I.” When in doubt about which pronoun to use, take out the other person’s name and the and.

8. Usage of the pronouns whose and who’s can be confusing. Who’s looks like a possessive but is really the contraction for who is.
Who’s that over there?
Whose scarf is this?

9. Except in dialogue, avoid using it without an antecedent. Examples: “It’s warm out today.” “It’s common knowledge . . .” “It’ll be a cold day in Africa before I . . .”


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Kathy Ide has written books, articles, play and movie scripts, short stories, devotionals, and curriculum. Her books include Polishing the PUGS and Fiction and Truth. Kathy is a full-time freelance editor, offering a wide range of editorial services for authors and publishers. She also speaks at writers’ conferences across the country. She is the founder and coordinator of The Christian PEN: Proofreaders and Editors Network ( and the Christian Editor Network ( To find out more, please visit

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