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GMAT Pronoun Traps

On the GMAT Sentence Correction, one of the most common types of traps involves simple ordinary pronouns, usually personal pronouns.  What’s so hard about pronouns?  Well, consider this practice Sentence Correction question.

1.  While the Senate of the Roman Republic did not have the power to enact laws, their decrees generally were obeyed like law, and through them they exercised considerable influence.

    (A) their decrees generally were obeyed like law, and through them they
    (B) its decrees generally were obeyed as if to be law, and through these it
    (C) their decrees, generally obeyed as law, through it they
    (D) its decrees generally were obeyed like law, and through them it
    (E) their decrees were generally obeyed as was the law, and through it they

That question is packed with pronoun problems — do you see them all?  A full explanation will appear at the end of this article.


Introduction: what is a pronoun?

A pronoun is a word that stands in for a noun, taking the place of that noun.  Technically, there are a few different kinds of pronouns. The most common are the personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, they and associated cases) — these are the focus of the present post.   These typically have a subjective or nominative case (“I“), an objective case (“me“), and possessive forms (“my” and “mine“).  Just FYI, some other pronoun types include:

    (A) demonstrative pronouns (e.g. this, that, these, those, etc.)
    (B) reflexive pronouns (e.g. myself, yourself, etc.)
    (C) indefinite pronouns (e.g. anyone, anybody, etc.)
    (D) interrogative pronouns (e.g. who?, what?, etc.)
    (E) relative pronouns (e.g. who, what, that, whoever, whatever, etc.)

Sorting out the differences among these is a bigger task, and not necessarily helpful for excelling on the GMAT Sentence Correction.  Let’s stick to big pronoun ideas.

Here’s a BIG pronoun idea: The noun a pronoun represents is called the antecedent.  A pronoun must agree with its antecedent in gender and number.  With this terminology, we are ready to discuss traps.


Trap #1: Antecedents in the possessive

By a time-honored convention that the GMAT follows, the antecedent cannot be in the possessive form.

AAAA replacement Cicero

That sentence would be 100% wrong on the GMAT, because the antecedent, Mr. Marcus Tullius Cicero, is in the possessive.  We would have to use the name “Cicero” in the place of “him” at the end of the sentence, or we would need to restructure the entire sentence to take Mr. Cicero out of the possessive. NB: the one exception: a noun in the possessive can be the antecedent of a possessive pronoun:

AAAA replacement Cicero

That sentence could be 100% correct on the GMAT.

Trap #2: Collective nouns

Consider the following list — the US Supreme Court, the steelworkers union, the Assyrian Orthodox Church, the prison population, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Coca-Cola corporation, a herd of cows, the UCSF Medical Center, and the New York Mets baseball team. J  What do all of these have in common?  Precious little, but all are collective nouns — that is to say, each one is a singular noun representing a collection of individuals.  Each one, as the subject of a sentence, would take a singular verb.  Thus, as an antecedent, each demands a singular pronoun: e.g. “the Berlin Philharmonic performs blah blah blah and then it does ….

This is perhaps the most common pronoun mistake on the GMAT.   Folks see a collective noun, such as one on that list, and they think “Gee, there are a ton of folks in that group“, and as a consequence, they use the plural pronoun.  That is wrong 100% of the time.  Expect to see incorrect Sentence Correction answer choices of this very pattern on the real GMAT.  Do you see which answer choices in the question above have laid this trap for you?


Trap #3: Repeated pronouns

The pronouns with the same antecedent are often repeated in a sentence — that’s fine:

3)  Fred came to town because he wanted to introduce his sister to his lawyer.

That sentence has several pronouns, and they all unambiguous refer to “Fred” — this is 100% grammatically correct.  It’s also fine if totally different pronouns refer to different antecedents.

4) Marcia loved her colleagues because they would go out of their way to help her on days when her children were home from school.

There are five pronouns in that sentence, but because one antecedent is singular and one is plural, the antecedent of each pronoun is perfectly clear.   The problem arises when the antecedents are the same in number, and thus cannot be distinguished.


Those two sentences are complete train wrecks!  In the first sentence, we may be able to sort out who is who if we know our Twentieth Century history, but in the second sentence, unless you personally know the people and their proclivities, you would have no way to sort out what’s going on.

The GMAT hates ambiguity on Sentence Correction.  In any Sentence Correction question, the same pronoun must refer to the same antecedent.  It is 100% unacceptable to have the same pronoun refer to two different antecedents: even if you think you can interpret from context the antecedent in each case, the grammar and syntax themselves must make all distinctions crystal clear.  It’s not enough for logic to fill in the holes in grammar: in a well-constructed GMAT sentence, logic and grammar must say exactly the same thing.  Anything less than that is unacceptable to the GMAT.

This third trap also appears in some of the answer choices in the question above.


Get it?

If you understand those three, you will understand virtually every pronoun situation the GMAT Sentence Correction will throw your way.   If you have had some flashes of insight while reading this article, take another look at the practice question before reading the solutions below. Here’s a practice question from inside the product that also explores pronoun issues:


Questions? Comments?  Let me know!  🙂


Practice question explanation

Split #1: as discussed above, the Senate of the Roman Republic is a collective noun.  Yes, it had many members, but like all collective nouns, it is singular.  It would take a singular verb in the present tense, and it demands a singular pronoun — “it” and “its”.  Choices (A) & (C) & (E) make the mistake of using the plural pronouns, “they” and their”, so these are wrong.   Choice (A) compounds the mistake with the phrase “through them they …”, using the same pronoun with two different antecedents.

Split #2: The word “decrees” is plural and demands the plural pronoun.  (C) & (E) make the additional mistake of referring to “decrees” with the singular pronouns.

Split #3: the comparison.  We are comparing the subject to subject, noun to noun, so the word “like” is perfectly acceptable —- “decrees …. like laws“.  This is what (A) & (D) have.  If we use the word “as”, we need a whole phrase — the construction “as was the law” in (E) is acceptable but wordy.  The “as” + [noun] construction of (C), “as law“, is not favored by the GMAT.  Choice (B) has the atrocious “as if to be law” — wordy, tentative, hypothetical, and grammatically incorrect: take that out back and shoot it!

The only possible answer is (D).


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33 Responses to GMAT Pronoun Traps

  1. Dushyant Jain July 10, 2016 at 9:33 pm #

    Hi Mike,
    In the above example for Senate Roman Memebers i can understand that it is collective noun but what about HAVE In the main corrected subject. Have is Plural?

    Don’t you think it should be Has

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 12, 2016 at 7:52 am #

      Hi Dushyant,

      Happy to help! 🙂

      This verb is not “have” alone but rather “did not have.” There is no other way to form a negative past tense verb in this case. If we imagine this were a present tense verb, it would be “does not have” instead of “do not have” and the singular/plural distinction would be more clear.

      I hope this clarifies! 🙂

      • Dushyant Jain July 12, 2016 at 3:18 pm #

        Thanks This explanation helps a lot.

  2. Vikas Bhardwaj April 19, 2016 at 3:16 am #

    Hi Mike,

    Thanks for your previous responses.

    For the example – “Cicero’s rhetorical style is well admired, and modern scholars still read and admire his writing” , you have mentioned the exception: a noun in the possessive can be the antecedent of a possessive pronoun:

    However, the antecedent in this case is the possessive noun “Cicero’s rhetorical style”. How can the pronoun “his” be used for the antecedent “…” (“Cicero’s rhetorical style”.) ?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert April 19, 2016 at 8:58 am #

      Another great question from Vikas! The problem her,e which Mike touched on, is that the possessive pronoun “his” actually can’t be used as an antecedent unless his is directly followed by a possessed object.

      In other words, the sentence “Cicero’s rhetorical style is well admired, and many scholars consider him the greatest writer of the first century BCE” is incorrect because him is not possessive, and can’t have the possessive antecedent Cicero’s. But “Cicero’s rhetorical style is well admired, and many scholars consider his the greatest writer of the first century BCE” would *also* be incorrect, because a possessive pronoun like his must be followed by a possessed object.

      This is why Mike proposed the following differently-structured sentence as a correct alternative: “Cicero’s rhetorical style is well admired, and modern scholars still read and admire his writings.” In this case, his is followed by a possessed object– the writings that belong to Cicero.

      To give a simpler example, under the academic grammar rules found on the GMAT, you couldn’t say “The man’s coat was very expensive, and people felt it looked good on him. But you also couldn’t say “people felt it looked good on his,” because this ending doesn’t place any kind of possessive object after his. Instead, you’d need to end that sentence with something like, “people felt his coat looked good” or “people admired his coat.”

      • Vikas Bhardwaj April 20, 2016 at 6:25 am #

        Thank you so much for such a detailed explanation.

        Helps a lot !

  3. Swanidhi December 9, 2015 at 2:52 am #

    Hey Mike
    In sentence (5), about the French and Germans, it I remove the comma before ‘because’, would it make the meaning clearer? Or would that be acceptable choice in GMAT?

    Thanks in advance!

  4. May October 23, 2015 at 8:19 am #

    Hi Mike, Is this a rule – “Two different pronouns cannot have the same referent.” ?

    Example – To map Earth’s interior, geologists use a network of seismometers to chart seismic waves that originate in the earth’s crust and ricochet around its interior, which travel most rapidly through cold, dense regions, and more slowly through hotter rocks.

    ‘that’ and ‘which’ seems to refer to seismic waves. Is this valid?

  5. Abhinav June 10, 2015 at 5:55 pm #

    In the question #5, doesn’t “French” represent a collective pronoun, referring whole group of people who are native to France? Then why have you used “have”, treating “French” as plural? Though, I know that this is correct uses, I would like to understand, exactly why its used different from other collective pronoun. Thanks for your response.

  6. Abhinav June 10, 2015 at 5:49 pm #

    Hi Mike, in the practice sentence at the top, isn’t “like” used in the wrong way? GMATically, we are supposed to user like for comparisons only and to show as function or in place of “similar to” we are supposed to use “as”. Though, its not related to pronouns, I would request you to clarify this confusion. Thanks in advance.

  7. Abhinav January 4, 2015 at 1:16 am #

    Hi Mike, I have a query on the examples given above. In the example 2, you have shown that how a different case of pronoun cannot refer to a different case of noun a. (“him” referring to “Cicero’s”). But in example 3, “his” referring to “Fred” is considered correct.

    Please shed some light on this use. Thanks for your reply in advance.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike January 5, 2015 at 3:50 pm #

      Dear Abhinav,
      I’m happy to respond. 🙂
      My friend, I think you are misconstruing what I said. I did NOT say that the antecedent and the pronoun always match in case. A discussion of different grammatical cases of nouns & pronouns is a bit too technical for the purposes of the GMAT. Think of it this way. An ordinary English noun, including proper nouns, has two forms: possessive and (for lack of a better term) “non-possessive”: Mike’s vs. Mike, Abhinav’s vs. Abhinav. The “non-possessive” form is the default form of the noun, and this form can always be the antecedent for any pronoun of any case.
      Fred read a book that he liked. (subjective pronoun)
      Fred read a book that offended him. (objective pronoun)
      Fred read a book and then lent it to his sister. (possessive pronoun)
      Those are all correct. The “non-possessive” form of the noun, “Fred,” is the default form, and it can be the antecedent of any kind of pronoun.
      If the antecedent is in the possessive, that’s problematic. As a general rule, a noun in the possessive cannot be in the antecedent. The exception is: if the pronoun is also in the possessive, and if no ambiguity arises, as in sentence 2a above, then that’s the only time the antecedent could possibly be in the possessive. An antecedent in the possessive is a special case that is only correct under very specific conditions. Any antecedent in the “non-possessive” is the general default case that is always correct, barring other unrelated problems (ambiguity, etc.).
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

      • Abhinav January 6, 2015 at 3:58 am #

        Hey Mike, Thank you very much for explaining it so well. Though I knew the uses, I still wanted to make it clear that technically I understand it correctly. Thanks for all your time.

        • Mike MᶜGarry
          Mike January 6, 2015 at 1:10 pm #

          Dear Abhinav,
          You are quite welcome! Best of luck to you!
          Mike 🙂

  8. Brijesh May 31, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

    When we say ‘Antecedent,’we mean something that comes before a pronoun.
    Check myth 4 in this link

    Can we also use relative pronouns in the same way as other pronouns by checking most possible links instead of relying completely on ‘Touch Rule’.
    Some books say relative pronouns can be used as conjunctions and can modify complete sentence.please,throw some light.

    I am very grateful for your support.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike June 1, 2014 at 12:31 pm #

      Dear Brijesh,
      To be honest, I do not have much respect for that source. Yes, the “antecedent” almost always comes before the pronoun — that’s precisely what the word “antecedent” means, “thing that comes before.” Relative pronouns begin relative clauses, which are noun modifiers. Like all noun modifiers, they usually obey the Touch Rule, but the important exception is the issue of Vital Noun Modifiers. See:
      On the GMAT, relative pronouns absolutely cannot modify complete sentences. Please don’t look at general grammar sources which are not speaking about the GMAT, because there are kinds of different preferences and different perspective. You need to limit yourself to sources that know thoroughly the standards of the GMAT.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

      • Brijesh June 1, 2014 at 2:23 pm #

        I have become a big fan of all your articles.

        Please help us in demystifying ‘Comma Usage,’I think some conventions like FANBOYS and others are not always applied.


        Brijesh 🙂

        • Mike MᶜGarry
          Mike June 1, 2014 at 9:29 pm #

          Dear Brijesh,
          Thank you very much for your kind words, my friend. Unfortunately, these blogs are not the place to ask for help on all topics under the sun. If you would like more help with something not discussed here, please open a new thread in the Magoosh section of GMAT Club:

          Thank you again for your compliments.
          Mike 🙂

  9. Anubhav dogra April 28, 2014 at 7:19 pm #

    hi mike,

    i have a doubt.” through them they” can you explain they refers to which noun & them refers to which noun. .

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike April 29, 2014 at 10:10 am #

      Dear Anubhav,
      In that question, choice (A) is WRONG. As I explain in this article, it makes a classic pronoun mistake. The OA of that question is (D). I would suggest reading through the sentence with (D) in place, and I believe everything will make sense.
      Mike 🙂

  10. Gaurav Kaushik February 18, 2014 at 9:18 am #


    Can you please shed some light on the difference between usage of ‘these’ and ‘them’ in choices B and D respectively. If the parts before comma were same in the two options, which one of them would be the correct option?

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike February 18, 2014 at 10:07 am #

      Dear Gaurav,
      Both are perfectly correct. If the portions before the comma were identical, there would be no valid way to choose between them, because each would completely acceptable. Does this make sense?
      Mike 🙂

  11. vinay October 12, 2013 at 10:57 pm #

    Hi Mike,

    Can I start a sentence with a pronoun ?

    Eg :

    “It is the political situation in Syria that is causing the increase in gas prices”.
    Here ‘it’ doesn’t have an antecedent .
    Please advise .

    Thanks ,

  12. Shailendra August 11, 2013 at 7:13 am #

    Dear Mike,

    I have two questions —

    1) On example 2 — my understanding is possessive pronouns can refer to nouns in possessive. So “his” can refer to “Cicero’s”. Am I wrong ?

    2) On example 1 — choice B, for a moment assume “as if to be law” is okay — then using “these” to refer to “decrees” is okay ? My understanding is “demonstrative pronouns” can appear only as adjective – so it should have been “these decrees”. Am I right on that split ?

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike August 12, 2013 at 10:00 am #

      At least on the GMAT, a noun in the possessive cannot be the antecedent for ANY pronoun, even a possessive pronoun. Perhaps in other context, that would be acceptable, but not on the GMAT.
      As for your second question — demonstrative pronouns are pronouns, so they can be used to modify nouns, but it’s also perfectly appropriate to use then as free-standing pronoun, just as we would use any other pronoun.
      Mike 🙂

      • Shailendra August 12, 2013 at 10:15 am #

        Hi Mike,

        Please see this Agastha Christie question from MGMAT —

        They mention Possessive Poison is not the rule to be followed on GMAT.

        • Mike MᶜGarry
          Mike August 12, 2013 at 10:48 am #

          Normally, I would agree with what MGMAT has to say, but in this instance, I have never seen the cases they are discussing in official material. I will continue to disagree with them, although I believe we are probably in a region so specialized that it will never appear on the GMAT.
          Mike 🙂

  13. kalra August 4, 2013 at 11:18 am #

    Hi Mike,

    Can you please explain where can we use the pronoun ‘THIS’. I guess it is wrong most of the time but where can it be used. Thanks.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike August 4, 2013 at 11:39 am #

      Dear Karla,
      That’s a great question. In colloquial English, we use “this” as a pronoun all the time, but I don’t know that I have seen it on the GMAT SC. The GMAT will use as “this” as an adjective — “this company”, “this person”, etc. —- but I have not seen it much as a pronoun on the GMAT.
      Mike 🙂

  14. dhler July 25, 2013 at 5:12 pm #

    Hi Mike,

    I have some difficulty in understanding the first correct example in Trap 3.

    “3) Fred came to town because he wanted to introduce his brother to his lawyer.”

    I think the last possessive pronoun “his” is quite ambiguous, because it can refer to the lawyer of his brother, or Fred’s lawyer.

    Am I right on this? Hope for your reply.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike July 26, 2013 at 1:05 pm #

      Dear Dhler,
      You’re right — there was an ambiguity there, so I changed the example sentence. It should be clear now. Thank you for pointing this out.
      Mike 🙂

      • Gn August 28, 2015 at 2:23 pm #

        While the Senate of the Roman Republic did not have the power to enact laws, their decrees generally were obeyed like law, and through them they exercised considerable influence.

        In this Question, isn’t should be –> While the Senate of the Roman Republic did not has
        instead of –>While the Senate of the Roman Republic did not have ??
        has instead of have?

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