The word antecedent is a fancy name for a substantive word, phrase, or clause whose denotation is referred to by a pronoun. (How’s that for bantering around the Thanksgiving table Thursday?) For example, in the sentence I am true to my school, the antecedent is the pronoun I and the referring pronoun is my. (Hint: ante essentially means “before.” The antecedent shows up before the pronoun referring to it.) A pronoun must agree with its antecedent in number, gender, and person. Here are some more examples:
- I am true to my school, just as you must be to yours.
- Johnny said that he could do the job alone.
- Alice Louise wants to know whether her proposal has been approved.
- The club has not decided whether to change its policy on wakeboarding.
- The company’s auditors will issue their report tomorrow.
- The Bonnakers are giving a party at their new mansion.
- The grand jury has completed its investigation.
- Why not have each member write his or her own acceptance speech?
- It is I who am at fault.
- It is he who is offering to jump first.
- It is we, the members, who have to dismantle the slalom course now.
- It is they who are behind schedule.
- It is you who are to blame.
- BUT: You are the person who is to blame. (Here who refers to person; hence the verb is is to agree with person.)
Use a singular pronoun when the antecedent consists of two singular nouns joined by or or nor. Use a plural pronoun when the antecedent consists of two plural nouns joined by or or nor.
- Either Mark or Chuck will have to see his beloved team lose Saturday afternoon. (not: their)
- Neither Matilda nor Tallulah wants to do her share. (not: their)
When or or nor joins a singular noun and a plural noun, a pronoun that refers to this construction should agree in number with the nearer noun. However, a strict application of this rule can lead to problems in sentence structure and meaning. Therefore, always try to make this kind of construction plural by locating the plural subject nearer the verb.
- Neither Santa Claus nor his elves have reached their goal. (The plural pronoun their is used to agree with the nearer noun, elves; the verb have is also in the plural.)
- NOT: Neither the elves nor Santa Claus has reached his goal. (The sentence follows the rule: his agrees with Santa Claus, the nearer noun, and the verb has is singular; however, the meaning of the sentence has been distorted.)
Make sure that the pronouns you use refer to the antecedents you intend. To avoid confusion, reword as necessary.
Confusing: Unrealistic deadlines, excessive pressures, and unsafe working conditions can be very damaging to your employees. You must do everything you can to eliminate them. (The employees or the destructive conditions?)
Clear: Unrealistic deadlines, excessive pressures, and unsafe working conditions can be very damaging to your employees. You must do everything you can to eliminate these destructive conditions.
Source: The Gregg Reference Manual, Eighth Edition.