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Chris Lele

Pronouns on the SAT — Grammar Fundamentals

SAT Pronouns

Every time you see a pronoun on the SAT that pronoun should be clearly linked to a noun. That noun is what we call the antecedent. Typically, it’ll come before the pronoun, but not always. The main point is you don’t have a mysterious “he” floating around in a paragraph. The “he” should clearly refer to Jim, Bob, or whatever male you are writing about.

Jim was voted class president mainly because he is very popular amongst the student body.

SAT-level example:

Though Einstein is lauded for his genius, he wasn’t particularly adept at mathematics and often relied on his more mathematically minded peers to crunch the numbers to support his more complex theories.


Pronoun Number

In the last sentence, you can see that “he” and both of the “his” pronouns refer to Einstein. This use of pronouns should be pretty straightforward to most. Things get a little more complicated when we drop the word “number” in there. “Number” as far as verbs and pronouns go, refers to either singular or plural.

For instance, the number of ‘I’ is singular, the number of ‘we’ is plural. However, most of us are unlikely to mix those two up. The SAT will most likely test you by taking a plural subject and using the “it” pronoun to refer to a plural subject, or vice versa. See if you can spot the error below.

Bobby forgot to do several assignments but turned it in later.

In this sentence, what does “it” refer to? Commonsense tells us the assignments. Indeed, we speak this way and would understand exactly what the person is saying. However, in writing, you have to make sure that the pronoun matches the subject in terms of number. In this case, “assignments” is plural, therefore we need the plural pronoun “them” (some students are often surprised to see “them” refer to non-human subjects and abstract nouns, though this usage is 100% correct).

Correct: Bobby forgot to do several assignments but turned them in later.

By the way, if you are still not convinced and think that “it” refers to homework, which is singular, remember that the noun homework actually has to show up somewhere in the sentence.


Inappropriate Shifts in Person

The SAT likes to trick you by switching from the third person (one to the second person (you) or vice versa. Always remember that the correct pronoun is the one that appears in the non-underlined part.

To give you a little refresher, here is a table showing the different number and “person” of pronouns.

We have all received them: emails claiming that we have won or inherited a large sum of money. While most of us see these emails for what they are—utter scams—a small percentage are lured in, believing that they are indeed the recipients. Yet Internet scams are not always so obvious and so 1) one needs to be on guard against far subtler forms of online deception.


B) you need
C) we need
D) they need

Often a scammer will pose as a legitimate company, sending an email that has the insignia and branding of that company. Called “phishing”, this method of extorting confidential financial information from online users is on the rise. Indeed, if one looks through their email account, they are likely to come across an email that seeks to “phish”. Of course, you probably do not even bother to open such an email in the first place, because it seems like junk mail, or mass email.


B) he and she
C) you
D) one


B) we probably do
C) they probably do
D) one probably does


Answers and explanations:

  1. From the very beginning of the paragraph, the pronoun “we” is used. There is even an “us”, signaling that we are using the third person plural. “You” is the second person. We can’t just change the pronoun of the audience we are addressing. Whichever pronoun is not underlined determines the pronoun the essay should use to address the reader. Answer B).
  2. Here the author uses the third person singular pronoun “one”. To keep this consistency the first underlined part should be “one is”. Answer D).
  3. Here the pronoun changes to you. Again, keep it consistent with the pronoun “one”, which appears in the non-underlined part of the paragraph. Answer D).


About Chris Lele

Chris Lele is the GRE and SAT Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh Online Test Prep. In his time at Magoosh, he has inspired countless students across the globe, turning what is otherwise a daunting experience into an opportunity for learning, growth, and fun. Some of his students have even gone on to get near perfect scores. Chris is also very popular on the internet. His GRE channel on YouTube has over 8 million views.

You can read Chris's awesome blog posts on the Magoosh GRE blog and High School blog!

You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook!

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