A pronoun can often be used as a substitute for a noun in a sentence. Anytime a pronoun is used in a passage, that pronoun must have a clear antecedent; that is, it must directly connect to a noun or pronoun that was mentioned before it.

Wrong: Jim, Jerry, and Frank were best friends; unfortunately he never talks to them anymore.

Whoa now! Who is this “he” we are talking about? And what group of people makes up “them?” The sentence, as it stands, does not give us enough context to justify use of the pronoun “he”.

Correct: Jim, Jerry, and Frank were best friends; unfortunately Jerry never speaks to the other two anymore.

Anytime you are reading a passage and you find yourself confused by a pronoun, look over the sentence again and try to clarify what or whom the pronoun is referring to; if you can’t, make a note and move on. That unclear pronoun may come back as a question in mere moments!

Missing or Ambiguous Antecedent

When the noun that a pronoun refers to is missing or unclear, it is necessary to include the specific name of the person, place, or thing to ensure your sentence is clear and correct.

Given a choice between a pronoun such as it or they and a noun naming a specific person or thing, the noun will virtually always be correct even when it appears in the longest answer.

Example 1
Some sources claim that Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes was the first person to bring the tomato to Europe in 1521. Others say that Christopher Columbus took it back as early as 1493. Regardless of which version is true, reports from that time period all agree that they were intensely suspicious when they first encountered the small yellow fruit.

A.
NO CHANGE
B.
members of the Spanish court
C.
some of them
D.
those people

Solution:
Since the passage describes how two explorers brought the tomato back to Europe, it makes sense that it would refer to the Europeans who first encountered the fruit. however, the noun “Europeans” doesn’t actually appear in the text. Only option B supplies the noun indicating who was suspicious. B is the correct answer.
Example 2
As the group waited to spot the comet in the dark field outside of town, it struck me that Rachel and Nancy were polar opposites. Rachel laughed and chatted with her friends while eagerly watching the night sky, while all Nancy did was complain about the mosquitoes and ask when they were going back. She was certainly having the better time.

A.
NO CHANGE
B.
Rachel was certainly having the better time.
C.
Nancy was certainly having the better time.
D.
Rachel and Nancy were certainly having the better time.

Solution:
All of the listed sentences could be grammatically correct, and in the right logical context, any of them could make sense. This particular paragraph, however, describes how Rachel “laughed” and “chatted” “while eagerly watching the night sky,” while it says Nancy “complained” and “asked when they were going back.” The paragraph’s details convey that Rachel had the better time, so B is the correct answer.

Emphatic Pronouns

An EMPHATIC PRONOUN is a pronoun that emphasizes its antecedent. Emphatic pronouns always end with “self’ or “selves.” Some emphatic pronouns are MYSELF, HIMSELF, HERSELF, YOURSELF, ITSELF, THEMSELVES, OURSELVES, and YOURSELVES.

Examples:

  • I saw the aliens myself.
  • The band itself is amazing, even without the fancy costumes.

Note: Emphatic pronouns are never surrounded by commas.

Example 3
The author’s characters, who are quite eccentric, by itself are enough to distinguish her work from others.
A.
NO CHANGE
B.
its own
C.
their own
D.
themselves

Solution:
The pronoun is referring to the “characters,” who are plural. Therefore, the correct answer is D.

Me vs. I

It can get tricky trying to determine when to use either “I” or “me” in your writing. Thankfully, once you get exposed to enough of these questions, you’ll start to develop an eye to detect the subtle differences between the two.

First, use your ear and your common sense. If something does not sound right or looks awkward, it probably is. Be sure not to overthink.

Use “me” when you are receiving an action. You may or may not be the subject.

Examples:

  • He threw the football to me.
  • He gave me my paycheck.
  • My friends threw me a surprise party.

In all three instances, you are receiving the action. You are receiving the football, given a paycheck, and thrown a party. “I,” on the other hand, is used when you are performing an action.

Examples:

  • Here I am, typing up this article for you to read for the SAT.
  • I went out yesterday to get some groceries.

Here, you are the one who is doing all of the actions. You also happen to be the subject.

Those examples might seem silly, so here’s a more difficult example that you might have more trouble with. You may see a question on the SAT where the answer comes down to deciding between “and me/me and” or “and I.” To help identify the correct answer, take out the extraneous subjects and then look for which one sounds better or makes more sense.

Wrong: Me and Hannah went to the store.

To fix the error, first take out the other person: Me and Hannah went to the store.

You can see that’s not correct, so you know you can change “me” to the proper case: I went to the store.

Lastly, add the other person back in: Hannah and I went to the store.

Works like magic!

Who vs. Whom

If there’s one pronoun that seems to perplex all our AP Guru students, it’s the issue of when to use the word ‘WHO’ and when to use ‘WHOM.’

Use the following to help you determine the appropriate use of ‘who’ and ‘whom’ in a sentence:

1. Whom is always used immediately following a preposition. If you see a preposition, followed by “who/whom,” make sure that it’s ‘whom.’

Examples:

  • To whom am I speaking?
  • Under whom do you work?
  • In whom do you place the most trust?
  • By whom were you standing?

2. Who is always the subject, and WHOM is always the object. The simplest way to think about the “non-preposition” use of the words “who” and “whom” is in terms of subject and object. “Who” is always the subject of a sentence, and the word whom is always the object of a sentence.

Remember this really, really easy trick: “he vs. him.”

If you would use ‘he’ in a sentence, replace “he” with ‘who’, and if you’d use ‘him’ in a sentence, replace the word “him” with ‘whom.’

In other words

  • I punched him.
  • I spoke with him on the phone.

All turn into

  • Whom did you punch?
  • Whom did you speak to on the phone?

But

  • He is a great guy.
  • Do you ever think he needs to take a vacation?

Turn into

  • Who is a great guy?
  • Who do you think needs to take a vacation?

Shift in Point of View

Keep the point of view the same within sentences and within paragraphs.

Wrong: If one does not believe, you will not succeed.

Correct: If one does not believe, one will not succeed.

Example 4
Psychologists advise that before making any major changes in your life, a person needs to focus on one’s goals.
A.
NO CHANGE
B.
their life, a person needs to focus on their goals
C.
one’s life, you should focus on your goals
D.
their lives, people should focus on their goals

Solution:
The underlined portion of this sentence uses two different possessive pronouns, “your” and “one’s,” neither of which agree with the antecedent, “a person.” Choice C has a similar mistake—it uses both “your” and “one’s,” when any given sentence can either use “you” or “one.” B has a mistake with the agreement in number: “their” is plural and can’t be used with “a person.”

Eliminating these choice leaves only D, which is the correct answer, since the third-person plural pronoun “their” is used appropriately with the third-person plural antecedent “people.”

Pronoun Agreement

Any time a pronoun is used to replace a noun, that pronoun must agree in both number and gender with the antecedent noun to which it refers. Singular pronouns (e.g. she, it) must agree with singular nouns, and plural pronouns (e.g. they) must agree with plural nouns.

Example 5
The cacao bean is the dried and fully fermented fatty bean of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao). Their the source of cocoa butter and solids, including chocolate, as well as an ingredient in many Mesoamerican dishes such as mole and tejate.
A.
NO CHANGE
B.
It’s
C.
Its
D.
They’re

Solution:
The question is asking you for the source of cocoa butter and solids that is the cacao bean. The cacao bean is singular. The pronoun ‘it’ should be used to refer to singular nouns. The answer is, therefore, B.
Example 6
Things have changed in the workplace; let me just tell you. I remember back when I was herding sheep, each man and sheep had their own sleeping bag. Nowadays, you’d be lucky to get your hands on a pillow, let alone an entire sleeping bag for a woolly friend!
A.
NO CHANGE
B.
they’re
C.
his or her
D.
some of their

Solution:
This sentence uses the incorrect pronoun to stand in for “each man and sheep.” The use of each individualizes the subject here, making the plural pronoun “their” incorrect. The singular pronoun “his or her” agrees with the subject, so C is the correct answer.

Pronouns can refer to either people or things. Some pronouns can refer only to people, some can refer only to things, and some can refer to both.

When you see a set of answer choices that include both singular and plural pronouns, you should always take a moment to determine which noun the underlined pronoun refers to.

Otherwise, you are very likely to be confused by answers that are grammatically correct but that create disagreements when plugged back into the passage.

Example 7
Mae Jemison became the first African American woman to travel into space when she went into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour on September 12,1992. After one’s medical education and a brief general practice, Jemison served in the Peace Corps for two years.
A.
NO CHANGE
B.
her
C.
its
D.
they’re

Solution:
Since the underlined pronoun can only refer to Mae Jemison, who is clearly female based on the pronoun “she,” “her” is the sole possibility and the answer must be B.
Example 8
The old maxim “Let the buyer beware” suggests that as a buyer we are responsible for inspecting merchandise for flaws before paying for it.
A.
NO CHANGE
B.
as a buyer it is their responsibility
C.
the buyer is the responsible one
D.
buyers are responsible

Solution:
Here the pronoun “we” stands in for the noun “a buyer.” This may seem fine because it makes sense that we can be buyers, but there’s a disagreement in number: “we” is plural and “a buyer” is singular.

The obvious fix is “as buyers we are responsible,” but that isn’t a choice. Answer B has a disagreement issue similar to A with the plural “their” standing in for the singular “buyer.” C adds extra words that make the sentence more confusing. As such, D, which cuts the pronoun altogether, is the correct choice.

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