What is a Pronoun Disagreement Error?

He or She Verses They or Themagreement

Often the rules of grammar are forgotten—sometimes even purposely ignored. However, on occasion, some of the rules of grammar simply slip through the cracks and are not properly taught or reviewed. One of the biggest rules of professional or recreational writing is to make sure that your pronouns agree.

If you create a sentence with “if a person” or “when a person,” the singular pronouns “he or she” will follow. If “they” is used to refer to a single person, a pronoun disagreement error occurs.

  • If a person comes into the store unsure of what to look for, you must ask questions to learn what he or she needs to find.
  • If a person comes into the store unsure of what to look for, you must as questions to learn what they need to find.

The first sentence follows pronoun agreement rules, while the second exhibits a pronoun disagreement error. It’s common to hear pronoun disagreement errors in everyday speech.


The Case for Gender Inclusive Language

Let’s face it.  Sometimes the reader doesn’t need to envision a he or a she.  Sometimes, we want readers to not consider gender.  Eliminating the reference to gender is appropriate in many circumstances, such as when writing a workplace policy manual.  However, pause before breaking the pronoun agreement rule. There are ways to rewrite sentences so that pronouns are not needed. There will always be strict grammarians who frown upon disagreement errors and who don’t understand the need for gender neutral wording.  Is breaking the agreement rule worth annoying these readers? In most cases, probably not.  Be creative with your wording and work around the rule.


Person Agreement

Keep your writing clear and in the proper (and same) person. For example, if you are working on a book and writing in first person, do not let yourself fall into third person writing. It happens and it’s easy to miss, especially when writing fiction. Whether you’re writing in first, second, or third person, pick one and stick to it.

Finally, make sure your writing stays clear and makes sense. If, for example, you’re working on a letter to the newspaper, don’t write something like “They shouldn’t use pictures like that.” Who are “they?” What are the pictures being used? Separate your sentence and thoughts in order to convey a clearer, more concise message.

Make sure that your pronouns agree by watching your numbers, gender, and in what person you are writing.  Avoid vague references such as “When they wrote about the arrest,” so questions are not left open. Your readers should not ask who “they” are or what “that” is, they should have clear word pictures. By following agreement rules, you will communicate with clarity. ~Holly


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Filed under Grammar, Revising & Proofreading

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