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Resource Summary: This page explains the relationship between pronouns and nouns and addresses pronoun ambiguity.
Last Updated: 05/17/11
The purpose of a pronoun is to take the place or refer back to a noun in a sentence. Just like subjects and verbs, nouns and pronouns should agree in number within a sentence.
Singular Noun, Singular Pronoun
When writing a sentence, using the same word more than once can get repetitive.
Example: When an individual is sick, the individual should call a doctor.
Rather than repeating individual twice, we could use a pronoun.
Example: When an individual is sick, he or she should call a doctor.
Since individual is singular (there is only one), we use a singular pronoun (he, she) to replace it.
Plural Noun, Plural Pronoun
What would happen if we made the subject of our sentence plural?
Example: When individuals are sick, individuals should call a doctor.
Now, since individuals is plural, we should choose a plural pronoun to replace it:
Example: When individuals are sick, they should call a doctor.
Multiple Singular Nouns, Plural Pronoun
Finally, if there are multiple single subjects, we must use a plural pronoun:
Example: When a supervisor and an employee are sick, they should call a doctor.
While pronouns are useful to help writers avoid repetition, pronouns should be used sparingly to keep the meaning of the sentence clear. Take a look at this sentence:
Example: When Jeff and Brian joined the team members, they were scared.
The pronoun here (they) is unclear--to whom does it refer? Was the team scared? Were Jeff and Brian scared? Because the pronoun they is ambiguous, choosing a noun rather than a pronoun will help with clarity.
Example: When Jeff and Brian joined the team members, the team members were scared.
More Noun and Pronoun Resources!
What's the plural of matrix? Check your spelling skills with our resource on plural nouns.
Ever wondered why you can't count words like sand and coffee? Review the Writing Center's information on count and noncount nouns for more information!
Not sure what a pronoun is? Confused as to when its or their? Look over this information on pronouns to help you out!