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How to correctly use Pronouns and Antecedents in GMAT Sentence Corrections

Pronoun GMATErrors in pronouns—words like he, she, it, they, our, etc.—and antecedents—the words that the pronouns refer to—are among the most common errors in English Grammar.  Take this sentence as an example:

Sentence A:  I spoke to someone at the help desk, and asked what kinds of product returns the company allows; they told me that they only take unopened items.

This sentence wouldn’t set off any “grammar alarms” for the average reader and speaker of English; however, you, intrepid GMAT test-taker, need to be wiser than average and spot a couple of pronoun/antecedent errors, such as:

1.  “They” and “their” are plural pronouns, and CAN’T be used as gender-neutral singular pronouns

One of the most frequently-committed grammar sins in every day speech is the use of “they” and “their” to indicate gender neutrality.  Sentence A, above, says “I spoke to someone.”  The sentence later says, “they told me,” and based on context it is clear that the “they” in question is the “someone at the help desk.”  “Someone” is singular.  Even if the “someone” in question did not have a clear gender, referring to him or her as “they” is unacceptable, grammatically speaking. 

There are a few ways that you can fix this; if you have no way of knowing the person’s gender (e.g., you got an email from a stranger with no clear gender identifiers), you can refer to the person as “he or she.”  If you should know the person’s gender, pick one and stick to it.  Or you can craft the sentence in such a way that you either eliminate the pronoun in question all together or modify the antecedent to make it plural.  Depending on the circumstances, any of these solutions may work, but remember, there is no situation in which using a plural pronoun for a singular antecedent is correct.

2.  Companies, corporations, and similar entities are singular, and must be referred to as it

Sentence A says that “they only take unopened items.”  Here, the “they” in question is the company, since it is what “the company allows” that is being discussed.  A company is a singular entity, and must be referred to as “it,” unless that is clearly inappropriate for some reason.  Using “they” to refer to an entity is very common, and using “it” in this context may sound strange to you. 

Your solutions are the same for this issue as they are for the gender neutrality issue: you have to either deal with the strange-sounding pronoun, or rebuild the sentence in such a way as to avoid it entirely.

3.  Pronouns must have clear antecedents

In Sentence A, the pronoun “they” is used twice to refer to different things.  Even if those uses were correct—which, again, they were not—the possible confusion would have justified some correction.  If “they” said that “they” only take unopened items, was it the “someone” or the “company” speaking?  And do returns go through the “company” or “someone at the help desk”? 

You may be able to figure out the answers logically, but on the GMAT, you’re expected to correct sentences in such a way as to eliminate possible confusion about the antecedent to which a pronoun refers.  Let’s look at a couple of ways that we can give Sentence A new, grammatically correct life:

Sentence B:

I spoke to someone at the help desk, and asked what kinds of product returns the company allows; she told me that it only takes unopened items.

Here, we’ve replaced the incorrect plural pronouns with singular ones, correcting the first and second issues; in so doing, we’ve also eliminated the third problem, since there is no longer any potential confusion as to the correct antecedents for each pronoun.  But this kind of straightforward correction won’t always be an option, so let’s look at another way that we could fix this sentence:

Sentence C:

I spoke to someone at the help desk, and asked what kinds of product returns the company allows; I was told that only unopened items are accepted.

Here, the pronouns have been eliminated completely.  The result is a sentence that uses the passive voice.  The passive voice is frowned upon, but it’s not technically incorrect, and when it’s the only alternative to a clear error like using a plural pronoun for a singular antecedent, go with it.

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