San Jose City College

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     Pronoun Agreement with Generic Nouns and Indefinite Pronouns

Pronoun agreement with generic nouns becomes somewhat problematic because the gender of the generic noun is unknown and unimportant. Pronoun use also depends on how formal the context is. Spoken English is less formal than written English.

Spoken English (What you will hear) Formal English (What you should write)
A child should respect his parents.   NoteThis is correct, but shouldn't girls respect their parents, too? A child should respect his parents.    NoteMany people prefer to use the traditional solution to gender agreement and still use the masculine pronoun. It is correct; don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise.
A child should respect their parents.   NoteMany people have never adopted the his or her solution to the gender agreement problem. That's why they say their instead of his or her. But it's incorrect when the noun antecedent is singular. A child should respect his or her parents...(or his/her parents). NoteFeminism brought about this solution to gender agreement. Overuse of his/her becomes very awkward. Limit its use when possible by using generic plural nouns.
Children should respect their parents. Children should respect their parents.
Whether the context is formal or informal, the best solution is to use a plural generic noun whenever possible.

Pronoun agreement with indefinite pronouns can also be problematic because all of these pronouns are singular in form and neutral in gender. The pronouns everyone, everybody, and everything are plural in meaning. The following list includes all of the indefinite pronouns:

anyone everyone someone no one
anybody everybody somebody nobody
anything everything something nothing

These indefinite pronouns always take a third person singular verb, but which personal pronoun should be used when the gender of the indefinite pronoun is unknown? That depends on formal vs. informal use of these pronouns. Study the examples in the following table.

Informal Spoken English (What you will hear) Formal English (What you should write)
Everyone has their own problems.   NoteIn spoken English, the plural pronoun is used to refer to an indefinite pronoun more often than not, especially when the meaning of the indefinite pronoun is plural.

Someone left their dictionary under the desk.
Did anyone forget their umbrella?

In informal spoken English the above sentences are okay.
Everyone has his or her own problems.    NoteEveryone and everybody are plural in meaning but singular in form.

The singular pronouns should be used in formal written English:
    Everyone has his or her problems.
    Everyone has his/her problems.
    Everyone has his problems.
Somebody left their jacket in the classroom. Someone left his jacket in the classroom.   NoteSomeone is singular in meaning. The singular pronoun [his or his/her] is used to agree with the indefinite pronoun someone/somebody.
Is anybody looking for their keys? Did anybody leave his or her keys in the classroom?
Use informal pronouns in these sentences. Do you need possessive or subjective case? Use formal pronouns in these sentences. Use his or her rather than the slashed form where possessive case is needed.
Everyone must turn in assignment by next Friday. Everybody must turn in assignment by next Friday.
Every working citizen must pay taxes or be fined. Every working citizen must pay taxes or be fined.
No one wanted to stop what were doing and take a break. Nobody wanted to stop what was doing and take a break.  Note"Nobody wanted to stop what he was doing" would also be correct.
Did anyone forget to turn in test? Did anybody forget to turn in test?
Everyone who drives must carry driver's license. Everyone who drives must carry driver's license.
Someone keeps vandalizing the classroom computers. Campus police will install a hidden camera if continue doing this. Someone keeps vandalizing the classroom computers. Campus police will install a hidden camera if continues doing this.   Note"Campus police will install a hidden camera if he continues doing this" would also be correct.

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