GMAT Sentence Correction: Pronouns and Antecedents

English grammar is complicated. Unfortunately, learning and comprehending grammar is made even tougher by the fact that some grammatical errors have become such an accepted part of our speech that very few of us even notice them anymore. Errors in pronouns—words like he, she, it, they, our, etc.—and antecedents—the words that the pronouns refer to—are among the most common. 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 may not 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 be aware of potential pronoun/antecedent issues:


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. You may have learned that “they” and “their” are plural pronouns and should not be used to indicate gender neutrality. However, language evolves, and there is a growing acceptance of their use as singular pronouns; indeed, there is even evidence to suggest that “they” may have been used as a singular pronoun as far back as the 14th century. In recognition of these evolving standards, the GMAT test-makers have stated that they will not test the issue of whether “they” and “their” can refer to a single person. So, you will never see a sentence like Sentence A on the GMAT and have to fix this so-called error.

2. Companies, corporations, and similar entities are generally singular

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 generally  a singular entity, and should be referred to as “it,” unless that is clearly inappropriate for some reason. Note, for instance, that there are some organizations, such as the police, that are treated as plural; you would say “the police are . . . “ rather than “the police is . . . .”  So, unless you have reason to think otherwise, use singular pronouns to refer to a company or other organization.

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, 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.
The three rules of pronoun/antecedent usage above are consistently tested; start practicing and applying them now, and watch as Sentence Correction errors that you never even noticed before start popping out at you!