How to Avoid Pronoun Misuse on the SAT

SATWe use pronouns everyday – I, he, me, we, they, she – these words are so common that we rarely think twice about them. Yet, finding pronoun misuse on the SAT writing section is often overlooked. By learning to always match a pronoun with its antecedent (the noun that the pronoun replaces) you can avoid missing these errors. Let’s look at the following example first to ascertain what an antecedent is.

John went to the beach with his brother. 

The pronoun in this sentence is his because it replaces the noun in the sentence. Now, we must figure out what that noun (the antecedent) is before we can decide if the pronoun usage is correct. To find the noun we can ask ourselves a question and replace the pronoun with a question word. Ask yourself, “Who’s brother went to the beach?”. The answer, “John’s”, is the noun that the pronoun replaces. Therefore, it is the antecedent.

Once we know what our antecedent is, we can decide if it agrees with the pronoun. There are four ways in which a noun can disagree with its antecedent. Let’s just focus on the most common one – singular verses plural pronouns.

If a pronoun is singular (for example, he, she, I or me), the noun it replaces must also be singular. For example, what if I wrote the previous sentence like this:

John went to the beach with their brother. 

In this sentence, the pronoun their is plural. We use their when we want to talk about more than one person. We know, however, that it needs to replace the noun John, which is singular. Therefore, pronoun usage is incorrect in this sentence.

In a sentence like the one above, the misuse may seem clear. To make things harder, on the SAT, there may be several nouns in one sentence.  You will have to decide which one matches the pronoun. Let’s look at the following sentence:

The acceptance of scientific hypotheses is dependent on how well its predictions are supported by following experimental results. 

There are several nouns in this sentence so we must make sure we know which one the pronoun, its, is replacing. Is it “the acceptance” or “scientific hypotheses”? We can figure that out by replacing the pronoun with a question word – ask, “What’s predictions are confirmed?”. The answer is the “scientific hypotheses” and, therefore, is the antecedent. Finally, we can decide if the two parts match. The pronoun, its, is singular but the noun scientific hypotheses is plural. Therefore, they do not match and the sentence is incorrect. So what pronoun would make the sentence correct? The plural form of its which is their.

Another way the SAT will make sentences tricky is by using words such as every and everyone that seem like they could be a plural nouns. Words like this are singular, because they refer to each and every one. Similarly, countries are singular because they refer to the country as a whole and not the individual people within the country. On the other hand, compound subjects, two nouns connected by and, are plural. Here are some examples to help you understand and remember these tricky cases:

Incorrect: Every one of his socks has a rip in them.
Correct: Every one of his socks has a rip in it.

Incorrect: Germany was in a depression after WWI because they owed a lot of money to foreign countries.
Correct: Germany was in a depression after WWI because it owed a lot of money to foreign countries.

Incorrect: Jenny and Ann went to the store because she needed milk.
Correct: Jenny and Ann went to the store because they needed milk.

Keep these helpful tips in mind when you’re studying for the SAT. Try noticing how you use pronouns in everyday conversations with friends and family.

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Danielle Kipnis is a Veritas Prep SAT instructor based in Miami. She is a native New Yorker who then majored in English and Dance at Northwestern University. At Northwestern, she founded the dance company Steam Heat. She now continues to dance, choreograph, and satiate her love for teaching through SAT prep. 

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