As you complete the six speaking and the two writing tasks, you want to make sure that you have good control of your language use, which means being able to use basic and advanced vocabulary and grammar with a high degree of accuracy. One way to improve your control of your grammar usage is to make sure that your pronouns and their accompanying antecedents agree in number. Keep in mind the following five guidelines:
Pronouns and their antecedents should agree in number
Substitutes for nouns, pronouns often have antecedents–nouns or pronouns that they reference. In addition to being important to the speaking and writing sections of the test for language-use reasons, you will sometimes be asked pronouns referent questions on the reading section of the exam. Pronouns and their accompanying antecedents agree when they are both singular or plural. Therefore, mastering pronoun agreement will help you in the reading, speaking, and writing sections of the TOEFL iBT.
Singular: The reading passage focused its argument around three contraversial issues regarding bears.
Plural: The reading and the listening passages explained their facts regarding three important issues about business success.
Plural pronouns should not refer to singular antecedents
Do not use plural pronouns to refer to indefinite pronouns and generic nouns:
Indefinite pronouns: anybody, anyone, anything, each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, neither, nobody, no one, somebody, someone, and something.
On the TOEFL exam, everyone will have to complete his/her [not their] speaking and writing tasks.
If you do use a plural pronoun to refer to an indefinite pronoun, you can repair the sentence in three ways:
- Replace with the pronoun using he or she or her or his.
- Use a plural antecedent.
- Recast the sentence to eliminate the pronoun agreement issue.
Incorrect: After someone takes the TOEFL exam, they will get their score report in about 2-3 weeks.
- Correct: After someone takes the TOEFL exam, he or she will get their score report in about 2-3 weeks.
- Correct: After students takes the TOEFL exam, they will get their score reports in about 2-3 weeks.
- Correct: Students will get their score reports back 2-3 weeks after having taken the TOEFL exam.
I advise against using the “he/she” construction since it is considered wordy, and every word you say counts during the TOEFL iBT independent and integrated speaking tasks (Google: How to be more concise in academic writing). Therefore, you need to be as concise as possible. In addition, traditionally using “he, his, him” to refer to men and women is considered sexist (Google: How to avoid sexist language in academic writing).
Treat generic nouns as singular
Generic nouns, representing typical members of groups or classes, although appearing to have plural meanings, are singular.
Every student must prepare rigorously if he or she wants [not they want] to get a high score on the TOEFL exam.
If you use a plural noun to refer to a generic noun, you can repair the sentence in much the same way as with indefinite pronouns.
Incorrect: A TOEFL student must study hard if they want to get a high score on the exam.
- Correct: A TOEFL student must study hard if he or she wants to get a high score on the exam.
- Correct: TOEFL students must study hard if they want to get a high score on the exam.
- Correct: TOEFL students must study hard to get a high score on the exam.
Repair these errors using non-sexist language
Many readers may oppose your use of he, him, and his to refer to both men and women. In addition, since it is wordy to use he or she and her or his, consider other ways to express these ideas.
Every once in a while you may use he or she or his or her:
- In our English Language Program, everyone is improving his or her [not their] academic English proficiency.
Change the antecedent from a singular to a plural form:
- According to ETS’s guidelines, students [not a student] can take their TOEFL exams about once in every 12 days.
Rewrite the sentence.
- Whether an international student gets admitted in a top grad will depend on [not their]high TOEFL scores.
- Incorrect: If a student is studying regularly, they have a high chance of getting a high GMAT score.
- Revised: A student studying regularly has a good chance of getting a high GMAT score.
- Incorrect: After everyone turned in the English 306 writing project, someone admitted that they had plagiarized the assignment.
- Revised: After everyone had turned in the English 306 writing project, someone admitted to having plagiarized the assignment.
In most cases, collective nouns are singular.
Collective nouns such as audience, class, committee, couple, jury, team, troop, or family name a class or group. In many cases, the group functions as a unit; therefore, the noun should be treated as singular. Conversely, the members of the group may function as individuals, in which case the noun should be treated as plural.
As a unit: The audience will have its viewing of the next movie in three weeks.
As individuals: The audience cheered loudly at the end of the Avengers’ film and stomped their feet.
As a unit: The class voted to postpone its final exam until next week, at which time the professor would administer the two-hour exam at 4:00 pm.
As individuals: The class debated among themselves about whether or not they would postpone the final exam.
As a unit: The committee has decided to enact its new marijuana enforcement policy next month.
As individuals: The committee have all signed their names on a document to officially enact the new policy.
As a unit: Each couple will need to drive its car to the park, after which a wedding ceremony will take place.
As individuals: The couple will need to talk to each other about their commitments that they will be making
As a unit: After two days of deliberation, the jury has reached its decision–guilty of first degree murder.
As individuals: After the jury examined all of the evidence, they began voting their conscience about whether or not the defendant was guilty of first-degree murder.
As a unit: After winning 92% of its games this season, the soccer team placed first in its division.
As individuals: The soccer team discussed whether they would all be able to come back next season to compete anew.
As a unit: A troop typically gets its order to advance in war from a commanding officer, in many cases a 4 or 5 star general.
As individuals: Among the petty officers and ranking soldiers, the troop are doing their 60 minutes of cardiovascular exercises at convenient times of the day
As a unit: Our family has decided to spend its vacation in the Bahamas next year.
As individuals: The family could not agree about whether or not they should go on a vacation to the Bahamas.
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Treat most compound antecedents connected by and as plural.
Junko and Zihao, who recently took the TOEFL exam, received their results three weeks later.
The best actor award went to Maria and Lena, who were recognized for their talent at the Los Angeles Theater of Music.
Compound antecedents used with “either…or” and “neither…nor”
If compound antecedents are connected by or or nor (or by either…or or neither…nor), the pronoun should agree with the nearest antecedent.
Either Mark or Frank should be recognized for his efforts.
If one of the antecedents is singular and the other one is plural, put the plural antecedent last to avoid an awkwardly phrased sentence.
Awkward: Neither the hikers nor Frank could find his path to the summit of Mount San Gorgonio.
Revised: Neither Frank nor the other hikers could find their path to the summit of Mount San Gorgonio.
If one of the antecedents is female and the other one is male, do NOT follow this traditional rule. For example, the following sentence is nonsensical:
Nonsensical: Either or Mark or Helen should be recognized for her efforts.
Revised: A recognition of effort should go to either Mark or Helen.
To sum up, improving your use of pronoun agreement in both your speaking and writing will help you to improve your overall scores in these two sections. Therefore, when you practice recording and writing responses to the independent and integrated speaking and writing practice tests, keep in mind these pronoun agreement rules, especially as you edit your responses.
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Pronoun Agreement Practice Exercises
To help you practice your TOEFL speaking and writing proficiency, orally correct the sentences and write down the sentence with your suggested corrections, and then click on the “Answer” to see a possible revision of the sentence.
1. Every student preparing for the speaking section of the TOEFL exam will need to have good control of their delivery, language use, and topic development.
2. The class discussed among themselves about whether it would complete a group project or a final exam at the end of the quarter.
3. Neither the other workers nor the boss is going to the fund raiser next week.
4. Either or Susan or Sam should be rewarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.
5. The jury of the OJ Simpson trial reached a no-guilty verdict in their deliberations.
6. The team will have to postpone their last football game because many of the players will be taking final exams in their classes.
7. An accounting student will need to take the Certified Public Accounting exam if they want to work for a prestigious company.
8. Neither Cade nor the other workers will complete his assignments in a timely manner.
9. In four small groups, the class talked to each other about whether or not it would go on a geological field trip to Death Valley, California.
10. Either Mark or Helen will be promoted due to her diligence and loyalty to the company.
11. Everyone should complete their homework assignments each week.
12. Not only the students but also the professor will need to complete their sexual harassment training.
13. A doctor should treat his patients with care.
14. Every person at the San Bernardino County Fair was able to use their entry ticket as a free pass to the rock concert.
15. Neither Exxon or the other gas companies will be given its tax breaks.
16. The committee has presented their proposal to the city planning commission.
17. Either Maria or Paul will be given a bonus for exceeeding their sales quota of $20,000 in a month.
18. The family has decided to postpone their vacation until December of next year.
19. Nobody will be given a break if they are driving while intoxicated.
20. A nurse will need to pursue her master’s degree in order to get more gainful employment.
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Michael Buckhoff, email@example.com