Pronoun Agreement on ACT English | Tips and Strategies

pronoun-antecedent-agreement-act-english

Pronoun Agreement on ACT English

pronoun-agreement-act-english

Pronoun agreement errors are an especially confusing type of ACT questions usually because people frequently misuse pronouns, especially when they speak.

On the ACT English section, you will be expected to recognize pronoun agreement errors in a variety of contexts. In this article we will define pronouns and antecedents; discuss the pronoun rules as well as common mistakes such as, disagreement in number, disagreement in person, and unclear antecedents the you are likely to see on the test. We will also talk about how to spot pronoun agreement errors on the ACT.

A Pronoun Must Always Match Its Antecedent

Pronoun Agreement on ACT English

This title sounds confusing, right? Well, let’s take it one word at time.

What is a Pronoun?

Rule: A pronoun is a word that takes place of a noun.

Common pronouns include I, he, she, they, it. However, words such as everyone, each, that, and which are also pronouns. If you need a more in-depth explanation about pronouns or any other part of speech, be sure to read our article on parts of speech tested on ACT English.

What is an Antecedent?

Pronoun Agreement on ACT English

Rule: An antecedent is a noun a pronoun replaces. (sometimes antecedents are called referents). Let’s take a look at an example – the pronoun is bold and antecedent is underlined.

Josh wanted his own car.

This seems simple, right. The pronoun “his” is replacing the noun “Josh.” Let’s look at a more complicated example:

Because he forgot that Jessica wasn’t going to school today, Josh reserved both their seats on the school bus and waited for her.

This sentence is much more complicated. “He” is a pronoun that replaces the noun “Josh.” “Her is a pronoun that replaces the noun “Jessica.” And “their” is a pronoun that refers to both Josh and Jessica.

The takeaway from this example should be that no matter how many pronouns there are in a sentence, each one must have a clear antecedent.

What does it mean for a Pronoun and Antecedent to match?

Pronoun Agreement on ACT English

Pronouns must agree in both number and person. For example:

Josh wanted their own car.

“Josh” is a singular noun, but “their” is a plural pronoun. Both noun and its antecedent must be either singular or plural. If not, this is disagreement in number.

Josh wanted my own car.

Here, “Josh” is a proper noun that should be paired with a 3rd person pronoun like “his”, not a 1st person pronoun like “my.” This is pronoun disagreement in person.

Let’s review common pronouns and their correct uses:

  • I/me/my – 1st person singular, i.e. the person speaking
  • We/us/ours – 1st person plural, i.e. the person speaking and others
  • You/your – 2nd person singular, i.e. the person being spoken to
  • You/your – 2nd person plural, i.e. the people being spoken to
  • He/him/his – 3rd person masculine, i.e. a male person or animal that isn’t present
  • She/her – 3rd person feminine, i.e. a female person or animal that isn’t present
  • It/Its – 3rd person neutral, i.e. inanimate objects
  • They/them/their – 3rd person plural, i.e. multiple people or things

The main point here is that every pronoun must have a clear antecedent and agree with the noun they replace. Let’s look at the common ACT English error types in more detail.

Pronoun Disagreement in Number

Singular nouns must be paired with singular pronouns and plural nouns must be paired with plural pronouns. Usually, this concept is intuitive: You wouldn’t refer to your neighbor as “them,” or the Avengers as “it.” However, the ACT, as always, finds ways to make pronoun agreement errors much less obvious. Let’s go over the tricks ACT uses and how you can confidently avoid them.

Distance Between Pronoun and Antecedent

Pronoun Agreement on ACT English

It is very easy to notice number agreement errors in simple sentences:

Incorrect:         Josh is very protective of their car.

Correct:           Josh is very protective of his car.

However, if pronouns are separated from their antecedents by words, sentences, or an entire paragraph, pronoun agreement can be much more difficult to identify.

After Josh drove for a long time, he went to the store to replace his tires. Unfortunately, they were completely out of them.

At first glance, this question may appear fine, but let’s look at each pronoun and match it with its antecedent:

He = Josh

His = Josh’s

They = the store

Them = the tires

The problem becomes obvious. The store is a singular noun and cannot be replaced with the plural pronoun “they.” Instead, the sentence should read:

After Josh drove for a long time, he went to the store to replace his tires. Unfortunately, it was completely out of them.

When answering a pronoun agreement question on the ACT English, determining the antecedent will make it much easier to decide what pronoun to use.

The Case of the Non-Gendered Singular Pronoun

Pronoun Agreement on ACT English

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Sometimes, even if you correctly determine the antecedent, there is still room for confusion and error – especially when the underlined pronoun is non-gendered. For example,

A student at the library was working on their assignment.

We employ this usage in everyday speech so it will probably sound correct. The antecedent in this sentence is “a student” which is a singular noun. Using pronoun “their” seems correct because “a student” could be male or female and there is no singular un-gendered pronoun in the English language. However, you cannot use 3rd person plural pronouns (they, their, theirs, or them) to refer to singular people of the unknown gender. You must use singular pronouns, as illustrated in the below example.

A student at the library was working on his or her assignment.

While, normally, “he,” “she,” and “he or she” are all equally correct, on the ACT you will always see “he or she”/ “him or her” / “his or her” used to refer to non-gendered singular people (such as student, singer, guitarist, friend, etc.)

Let’s try to apply these rules to an actual ACT example.

·      Real ACT Example

Let’s try to apply these rules to an actual ACT example.

Let’s try to apply these rules to an actual ACT example.

Explanation: The first step is to find an antecedent. What’s covered – most kayaks. “Kayaks” is plural so it must be replaced with a plural pronoun. We can eliminate choice A because “it” is a singular pronoun. The next step is to eliminate distractors – those answers that might look reasonable, but are not. We can eliminate choice B because pronoun “one” refers to a singular person and our antecedent is a plural inanimate object. We can eliminate choice D because “which” must come after a comma, not a period and creates a dependent clause. So that leaves C as the correct choice because pronoun “they” is a plural pronoun that can be matched with plural antecedent “kayaks.”

Pronoun Disagreement in Person

Pronoun Disagreement in person is a somewhat strange concept, but these types of disagreements are pretty easy to notice. The main rule is that the pronoun must reflect the type of thing it’s replacing. This means that you have to use “it” to replace an inanimate object, and “she” to replace a female person.

Similar to pronoun disagreement in number, the first step is to identify the antecedent and make sure that the pronoun and the antecedent agree. Once you’ve established this, the only thing left to worry about is consistency – if you start a sentence in the first person, you shouldn’t suddenly switch to the third person without a clear reason.

 Incorrect:         The palm tree grew so tall that she no longer fits the pot.

“She” clearly stands for the “palm tree,” but you cannot use “she” for inanimate objects, and the correct pronoun is “it.”

Pronoun Disagreement in Person (cont’d)

On the ACT, pronoun errors with disagreement in person are usually related to consistency – if a passage is in first person, you can’t suddenly introduce the third person and vice versa.

The most common error is with “one” and “you.” Both can be correctly used to refer to a non-specific individual, but you cannot flip-flop between them. “One” is more formal than “you,” is the only difference between them, so if you start a passage with “one” (or “you”) you have to use it throughout. For example,

Incorrect:         If one wants to be a Supreme Court Judge, you should first attend law school.

Correct:           If one wants to be a Supreme Court Judge, one should first attend law school.

Correct:           If you want to be a Supreme Court Judge, you should first attend law school.

The incorrect sentence uses two different pronouns, while the correct ones stick to one or the other.

One of the most common mistakes students make on the ACT is to assume that the more formal choice (e.g. “one”) is necessarily better. However, it is far more important to choose the pronoun that is most consistent with the passage and to make sure all pronouns match their antecedents.  Let’s illustrate this concept with an ACT example.

·      Real ACT Example

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pronoun-agreement-rules-tips-strategies-act-english

 

Explanation: The first step is to find an antecedent. Who or what is hearing the songs? Notice that the pronoun “I” is being used throughout the paragraph. Our main goal is to retain consistency, so the answer must use the same pronoun “I” which makes F the correct choice. G and H are distractors – they look plausible, but remember that you shouldn’t introduce a new pronoun in the middle of a sentence or paragraph. J cannot be correct because it creates a fragment.

Unclear Antecedents

So far, we’ve covered the rules of what to do to make sure that pronouns agree with their antecedents. But what if a pronoun doesn’t have a clear antecedent? Remember: a pronoun’s antecedent must be a noun that you must be able to circle in the text. In other words, it doesn’t matter if you know intuitively what the pronoun is referring to, the antecedent must be obvious in the text.

ACT English section uses pronouns without clear antecedents pretty often. Your job is to pick an answer that explicitly states what the pronoun is referring to.

Incorrect:         In order to get movie tickets from the box office, I need to know when they’ll be there.

What is the pronoun “they” referring to? Could be movie tickets, could be box office employees. We do not know because there is no clear antecedent. A correct version could read:

Correct:           In order to get movie tickets from the box office, I need to know when the employees will be there.

Unclear Antecedents (cont’d)

The pronouns this, that, these and those, often appear in these types of questions and can be especially confusing because we frequently use them without clear antecedents:

Student1:         Professor cancelled class again.

Student 2:        That’s annoying

This construction may be fine in spoken English, but it is absolutely incorrect on the ACT. Although it is clear what Student 2 is referring to, there is no clear antecedent.

This, that, those, and these must have clear antecedents – just like any other pronoun. It is ok if the noun comes after the pronoun. The corrected version of the above example is:

Student1:         Professor cancelled class again.

Student 2:        That move is so annoying.

Now we can explicitly circle the noun that is an antecedent to the pronoun “that.”

If this, these, or those are underlined, then the question is most likely about this type of error. (If that is underlined – it can mean there’s an antecedent issue, but more commonly it is a relative pronoun question.)

·      Real ACT Example

pronoun-agreement-rules-tips-strategies-act-english

pronoun-agreement-rules-tips-strategies-act-english

Explanation: as with any pronoun question, the first step is to determine the antecedent. The underlined pronoun “them” does not have a clear antecedent. It could be referring to “his studies”  or to the “Sun, Moon, and other celestial bodies”. Logically, none of these things can be used to predict a solar eclipse. The sentence is trying to say that he used his calculations to predict the solar eclipse. The only answer that makes it clear is G.

Applying the Pronoun Agreement Grammar Rules on the ACT

In this article we have covered the pronoun agreement rules and the types of errors and tricks you are likely to see on the ACT English section. Here is a summary of the rules as well as the strategies you should practice.

  • Every pronoun must have a clear antecedent
  • Pronouns and their antecedents must match in number, gender, and person.
  • For pronouns such as that, this, these, and those – the pronoun can be placed immediately before the antecedent.
  • Whenever you see an underlined pronoun, the first step is to identify its antecedent. If that is not obvious from the sentence in question, make sure to check surrounding sentences as well.
  • “He or she” is the correct pronoun usage for non-gendered antecedents. Never use “he” or “she” separately when referring to a non-gendered noun (friend, actor, surgeon) – the ACT considers this usage wrong.
  • Pronoun person must stay consistent – remember the rules about “you” and “one.”
  • When a pronoun lacks a clear antecedent, make sure to pick an answer that introduces the correct noun (see bullet point 1).

Next Steps

If you are struggling with pronoun question, make sure to read our article on pronoun case errors as well as our other ACT grammar guides on frequently tested topics such as subject-verb agreement and comma usage.

Want to get a big-picture strategy overview? Read this article on 5 key concepts you need to ace the ACT English section.

Need to build a study plan? Read our complete plan for studying for the ACT, review what the ACT actually covers, and take a practice test (or six)!

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