By Dave Bezaire & Susi Havens-Bezaire (Flickr: Crab Traps 1) CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons
Look at these crab traps, think about how each one is perfectly designed to lure its bait, structurally engineered for an easy entrance, but a nearly impossible exit, dropped in places where the crabs will easily find them, and enough traps to ensure that the fishermen will get their just reward. Now, imagine that you are the crab, and the test makers are the fisherman, intent on serving you for dinner. But instead of setting traps with string, metal, netting, and buoys, they use sentences, phrases, and words. One favorite trap of theirs involves pronouns and their antecedents.
A pronoun replaces a noun and must be consistent with the noun in number and gender. In grammar-speak, this consistency is known as agreement. Although a seemingly straightforward rule, errors involving pronouns and antecedents occur often, and usually in causal conversations. Test makers love to exploit these discrepancies between speech and formal writing in order to test a student’s actual knowledge of grammar rules.
HOW TO CORRECT THE ERROR
INCORRECT: Each of the elephants lounged lazily in the sun while they sucked trunk-sized amounts of mud and water out of the marsh to spray on their backs.
1. Change the pronoun (a common way to fix the problem on the test)
CORRECT: Each of the elephants lounged lazily in the sun while it sucked trunk-sized amounts of mud and water out of the marsh to spray on its back.
2. Change the antecedent
CORRECT: All the elephants lounged lazily in the sun while they sucked trunk-sized amounts of mud and water out of the marsh to spray on their backs.
3. Rewrite the sentence
CORRECT: Sucking trunk-sized amounts of mud and water out of the marsh to spray on their backs, the elephants lounged lazily in the sun.
ON THE GMAT, ACT, & SAT
When the portion of an underlined sentence contains a pronoun, you will need to run through a mental checklist of common pronoun-antecedent errors (luckily I have a list below for you ). To begin with, practice with a list near you of the common errors so you can actually run through a checklist, but as you progress, you will need the list less and less.
1. Ignore Modifying Phrases: Test makers lay traps for students, but their traps are standardized, repeated, and ultimately, easy to spot. One common trap is to disguise the true antecedent by placing a modifying phrase between it and the pronoun. Unfocused, tired, and novice students identify a plural noun in the modifying phrase or fail to find an antecedent at all. Thus, ignore modifying phrases when checking for pronoun-antecedent agreement.
2. Clarify Ambiguous Pronouns: Perhaps no error is more loved in grammar by testmakers than ambiguous pronoun reference. When a sentence contains more than one word that the pronoun can refer to, confusion occurs. This error is made in casual speech, which makes it difficult to identify unless students know the rule.
3. Beware of Possessive Pronouns: Another way to confuse test takers is by using a possessive noun, like Doug’s or Aki’s. Always look past these possessive pronouns–an antecedent cannot be implied in a sentence and must be stated explicitly–to the word modified by the possessive pronoun: Doug’s bicycles or Aki’s jellyfish.
4. Beware Indefinite Pronouns: Indefinite pronouns are tricky. In casual conversation, many people mistakenly use indefinite pronouns as if they were plural. As a result, your inner ear might be compromised by the casual speech of podcasts, songs, announcers, anchors, and friends. Make sure that you know the indefinite pronouns and make sure that you choose an answer that treats them as singular.
Possessive Pronouns: anybody, anyone, anything, each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, neither, nobody, no one, somebody, someone, something
5. Beware of Collective Nouns: Collective nouns are loved by test makers and loathed by test takers. These nouns, which refer to collections or groups as a whole, are sometimes treated singular, sometimes plural, and so test makers have many options to ensnare and befuddle students. Your only recourse is to determine the intended meaning of the sentence: is the group acting together or are the members in the group acting individually within the group? Often, though, test makers will write faulty sentences by treating the collective noun as singular when it should be plural.
Common Collective Nouns: party, committee, class, audience, crowd, troop, family, council, assembly
6. Nouns Combined with and, or, & nor: Test makers lay traps with and, or, and nor not only involving verbs, but also involving pronouns. The rules for subject-verb agreement apply here–nouns joined by and are plural; the last noun in a sequence or pair joined by or and nor will dictate whether it is singular or plural. Do a quick check to make sure the pronoun properly agrees with these combined nouns in the sentence.
7. this, that, which, and it: As pronouns, this, that, which, and it cannot replace entire sentences, ideas or concepts. Check to make sure that an antecedent is in the sentence for these words to refer to, not just implied. To resolve, look for answer choices that add an antecedent to the sentnence.