ACT English : Pronoun-Antecedent Gender Errors

Study concepts, example questions & explanations for ACT English

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Example Questions

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Example Question #1 : Pronoun Antecedent Gender Errors

Adapted from Looking Backward: 2000 to 1887 by Edward Bellamy (1888)

I first saw the light in the city of Boston in the year 1857. "What" you say "eighteen fifty-seven? That is an odd slip. He means nineteen fifty-seven, of course." I beg pardon, but there is no mistake. It was about four in the afternoon of December the 26th, one day after Christmas, in the year 1857, not 1957, that I first breathed the east wind of Boston, which, I assure the reader, was at that remote period marked by the same penetrating quality characterizing it in the present year of grace, 2000.

These statements seem so absurd on their face, especially when I add that I am a young man apparently of about thirty years of age, that no person can be blamed for refusing to read another word of what promises to be a mere imposition upon his credulity. Nevertheless I earnestly assure the reader that no imposition is intended, and will undertake if he shall follow me a few pages to entirely convince him of this. If I may, then, provisionally assume, with the pledge of justifying the assumption, that I know better than the reader when I was born, I will go on with my narrative.

Which is the best form of the underlined section?

Possible Answers:

no individual

no man

no woman

no one

Correct answer:

no man

Explanation:

While in contemporary English, we would use the phrase "no one," as it doesn't make any assumptions about the reader's gender, the sentence later uses the masculine possessive pronoun "his," so in order for the sentence to be grammatically correct, we need to use the phrase "no man," even though this assumes the reader is male; this was a common convention in 19th-century prose.

Example Question #2 : Pronoun Antecedent Gender Errors

Correct the italicized portion of the following sentence.

The student left they're study materials in the cafeteria.

Possible Answers:

NO CHANGE

them

her

his/her

their 

Correct answer:

her

Explanation:

The correct choice is "her" because "they're" is plural and a contraction for "they are." "Student" is singular, so the pronoun referring to it must be singular as well. The answer is not "their" because "their" is plural. His/her refers to a non-specific subject, but, in this sentence, the subject is clearly a singular person, so a singular, gender-specific pronoun was assigned. 

Example Question #3 : Pronoun Antecedent Gender Errors

In the last day of classes (1), everyone was distracted and unable to do their (2) work.  Even the teacher, which normally (3) was attentive and cheery, seems (4) unable to focus.  The final test took (5) way too long for everyone to complete, and many of students (6) had put down his head (7) on the desk.  The sound of the heat blowing through the room was enough to put everyone (8) to sleep, and the teachers' (9) eyes began drooping despite hisself (10).  After what seemed an eternity; (11) the bell had rung (12) and everyone, including the teacher, ran out of the room.

Choose from the following four options the answer that best corrects the underlined mistake preceding the question number.  If there is no mistake or the original text is the best option, choose "NO CHANGE."

Possible Answers:

they're

NO CHANGE

his or her

his

Correct answer:

his or her

Explanation:

Since the genders of the students are not known, the pronoun "his or her" must be used since "everyone" is singular.

Example Question #4 : Pronoun Antecedent Gender Errors

The world is full of contradictions and I am full of them as well. Every person has their quirks and I am no exception. I love sports but I am also lazy I love animals, but I am not a vegetarian and I love teaching but I hate taking classes. With all these contradictions how does a person like me make sense?  I would love to enlighten you!

What option make the underlined portion grammatically correct?

Possible Answers:

person has his or her quirks 

person has the quirks

person have their quirks  

NO CHANGE

person has their quirk 

Correct answer:

person has his or her quirks 

Explanation:

Since the subject of the sentence is singular—"person"—the pronoun that refers to it must also be singular. This means that "their" is not appropriate because it refers to more than one person.

Example Question #5 : Pronoun Antecedent Gender Errors

The cat made it clear to Jeremy whom was the boss around the house. The only time it showed him any affection was when it was time for the cat to be fed, the moment at which it would rub up against his legs and purr loudly enough to be heard. But as soon as the food hit the cat dish, it would run to the dish, gorging itself, and then ignore him the rest of the day. If he attempts to pet the cat at any other time, it will hiss and spit at him trying to bite him. Playing with the cat was even worst because it would wait until Jeremy was dangling something over it's face and then leap up to sink its fangs into his' hand. Eventually he would give up trying to be affectionate toward the cat and simply interacted with it every morning at feeding time. It was safer that way.

Choose the answer that best corrects the bolded portion of the passage. If the bolded portion is correct as written, choose "NO CHANGE."

Possible Answers:

his or her

NO CHANGE

its

her

Correct answer:

its

Explanation:

The possessive form of "it" is "its;" "it's" is the contraction of "it is" and thus would be inappropriate here. We still don't know the gender of the cat, so the other choices are also inappropriate here.

Example Question #6 : Pronoun Antecedent Gender Errors

Adapted from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

It was the sweetest, most mysterious-looking place any one could imagine. The high walls that shut it in were covered with the leafless stems of climbing roses which were so thick that they were matted together. Mary Lennox knew they were roses because she had seen a great many roses in India. All the ground was covered with grass of a wintry brown and out of it grew clumps of bushes which were surely rosebushes if they were alive. There were numbers of standard roses which had so spread their branches that they were like little trees. There were other trees in the garden, and one of the things which made the place look strangest and loveliest was that climbing roses had run all over them and swung down long tendrils which made light swaying curtains, and here and there they had caught at each other or at a far-reaching branch and had crept from one tree to another and made lovely bridges of themselves. There were neither leaves nor roses on them now, and Mary did not know whether they were dead or alive, but their thin gray or brown branches and sprays looked like a sort of hazy mantle spreading over everything, walls, and trees, and even brown grass, where they had fallen from their fastenings and run along the ground. It was this hazy tangle from tree to tree which made it all look so mysterious. Mary had thought it must be different from other gardens which had not been left all by themselves so long; and indeed it was different from any other place she had ever seen in her life.

Choose the answer that best corrects the bolded and underlined portion of the passage. If the bolded and underlined portion is correct as written, choose "NO CHANGE."

Possible Answers:

their

NO CHANGE

it

they've

them

Correct answer:

NO CHANGE

Explanation:

The pronoun "they" must agree with its antecedent, which is "roses." "Roses" is a plural noun, and in the phrase "where they had fallen," the pronoun is supposed to be in subjective case. "It" is incorrect because it is singular in number. Although "them" is in third person, it is incorrect because it is in the objective case. Similarly, "their" is incorrect because its in the possessive case of pronouns. "They have" is incorrect because the "have" is unnecessary in the sentence.

Example Question #7 : Pronoun Antecedent Gender Errors

Adapted from The Life of Christopher Columbus by Edward Everett Hale (1891 G. L. Howe and Co. ed.)

Columbus had always meant to sail first for the Canaries, which were the most western land then known in the latitude of its voyage. From Lisbon to the famous city of "Quisay," or "Quinsay," in Asia, Toscanelli, his learned correspondent, supposed the distance to be less than one thousand leagues westward. From the Canary islands, on that supposition, the distance would be ten degrees less. The distance to Cipango, or Japan, would be much less. As it proved, the squadron had to make some stay at the Canaries. The rudder of the Pinta was disabled, and she proved leaky. It was suspected that the owners, from whom she had been forcibly taken, had intentionally disabled her, or that possibly the crew had injured her. But Columbus says in his journal that Martin Alonso Pinzon, captain of the Pinta, was a man of capacity and courage, and that this quieted his apprehensions. From the ninth of August to the second of September, nearly four weeks were spent by the Pinta and her crew at the Grand Canary island, and she was repaired. She proved afterwards a serviceable vessel, the fastest of the fleet. At the Canaries they heard stories of lands seen to the westward, to which Columbus refers in his journal. On the sixth of September they sailed from Gomera and on the eighth they lost sight of land. Nor did they see land again for thirty-three days. Such was the length of the great voyage. All the time, most naturally, they were wishing for signs, not of land perhaps, but which might show whether this great ocean were really different from other seas. On the whole the voyage was not a dangerous one.

Choose the answer that best corrects the underlined portion of the passage. If the underlined portion is correct as written, choose "NO CHANGE."

Possible Answers:

Columbus had always meant to sail first for the Canaries, which were the most western land then known in the latitude of her voyage. 

Columbus had always meant to sail first for the Canaries, which were the most western land then known in the latitude of his voyage. 

Columbus had always meant to sail first for the Canaries, which were the most western land then known in the latitude of her voyage. 

Columbus had always meant to sail first for the Canaries, which were the most western land then known in the latitude of it's voyage. 

NO CHANGE

Correct answer:

Columbus had always meant to sail first for the Canaries, which were the most western land then known in the latitude of his voyage. 

Explanation:

Here the pronoun before the word "voyage" shows possession. The antecedent of the pronoun is Columbus, who is masculine in gender. Therefore, the correct pronoun must be third person male and possessive in case.

Example Question #8 : Pronoun Antecedent Gender Errors

“The Common Good: The United Aim of Many”

Among the many topics that are misunderstood in political science, and political philosophy, the notion of the “common good” ranks foremost.  Often, we think of the common good as being nothing more than getting “the most things for the most people.”  For example, when a person makes multiple millions of dollars, people will often say, “He should give back some of that money, for the sake of the common good.”  Whether or not such people should do this with his money, this is really an improper use of the expression the common good.

A better way to understand the common good is to think about common ends or common goals.  An example will help to explain this.  Think of a group of musicians on a stage.  If all of these people came togethere to practice in the same room, we wouldn’t call them a symphony.  A mass of people just playing any music whatsoever are not a symphony.  A symphony is an organized group; a mass of people is just a mass of people.  Nothing physically differs regarding the mass of people and the symphony.  They are both made up of the same “stuff,” namely a group of musicians.

However, a common good changes this mass into something that they never could be without that common good.  When these musicians come together to play the Dies Irae of Mozart, they become something that they never were as individuals.  Each member of the group uses his or her personal skill for the sake of a new, common performance.  Perhaps the tuba player loves to play loudly.  Perhaps the lead violinist loves playing quickly.  These preferences must be channeled and limited for the sake of the common enterprise of playing Mozart’s stirring piece of music.  The desires of the individual instrumentalists, whom play the music, no longer reigns supreme.

The common good unites this group.  If you were to ask the tuba player, what are you doing, he would answer, “Taking part in the symphonic playing of the Dies Irae.”  Then, if you were to ask any other musician the same question, he or she would answer in the same way.  The answer would not be, “playing the Dies Irae my way.”  If that were the answer, the musicain would not be part of the symphony.  He or she would be doing something private, not something that is truly common.

How should the underlined selection be changed?

Possible Answers:

Then, if you were to ask any other musician the same question, she would answer in the same way.

Then, if you were to ask any other musician the same question, he would answer in the same way.

NO CHANGE

Then, if you were to ask any other musician the same question, they would answer in the same way.

Correct answer:

NO CHANGE

Explanation:

Since you do not know the gender of any other musician in the group, you need to use the form "he or she" to indicate what such a person might say. Notice also that it is not acceptable to use "they." This is a plural pronoun, which would not match the antecedent "musician."

Example Question #9 : Pronoun Antecedent Gender Errors

“What is Leisure?”

It would likely surprise modern readers if he or she were told that the meaning of life is leisure. This seems to be the same thing as saying that the meaning of life is nothing more than relaxing by the side of the pool. One can imagine almost anyone thinking to himself, “What a preposterous idea.” This idea is not as foreign as it might appear at first glance. Indeed, it could be considered the classic Western position about the very meaning of life. 

Of course, we need to understand what is meant by the word leisure if we are going to understand this assertion. The best way to understand this is to consider a contrast between two different kinds of activity. On the one hand, there are many activities that are for the sake of something else. On the other hand, there are those activities that are done for their own sake. These latter kinds of activities are those that are properly understood as being leisurely. For example, when someone cuts onions for a meal, the cutting of the onions is not done for their own sake. The easiest way to figure out if something is being done for the sake of another end is to ask, “Why are you doing that.” The onion cutter will answer, “I am doing it so that I can make dinner.” This helps us to see that the cutting of the onions is for the sake of something else. Indeed, even the eating of dinner is for the sake of something else, namely attaining adequate nutrition.

In contrast to these examples, leisurely activities are those that are done for they’re own sake. For example, ask someone who enjoys organ music why he is listening to an organ concert. The answer will almost certainly be, “For the sake of listening to organ music. It is that important and beautiful!” Many things can be considered leisurely, including forms of games that are played merely for their own enjoyment; however, it is important to bear in mind that there is a hierarchy of goods. Some types of leisure are better than others and likely are more preferable.

How should the underlined selection be changed?

Possible Answers:

NO CHANGE

One can imagine almost anyone thinking to herself

One can imagine almost anyone thinking to himself or herself

One can imagine almost anyone thinking to themselves

One can imagine almost anyone thinking to oneself

Correct answer:

One can imagine almost anyone thinking to oneself

Explanation:

The pronoun reference here is completely neutral, namely to the word "one." Thus, even the option that has "himself or herself" is not the best among those provided. Instead, you should match "one" with "oneself." Yes, this can seem pretentious, but one should be quite careful about the pronouns that one uses.

Example Question #10 : Pronoun Antecedent Gender Errors

“What is Leisure?”

It would likely surprise modern readers if he or she were told that the meaning of life is leisure. This seems to be the same thing as saying that the meaning of life is nothing more than relaxing by the side of the pool. One can imagine almost anyone thinking to himself, “What a preposterous idea.” This idea is not as foreign as it might appear at first glance. Indeed, it could be considered the classic Western position about the very meaning of life. 

Of course, we need to understand what is meant by the word leisure if we are going to understand this assertion. The best way to understand this is to consider a contrast between two different kinds of activity. On the one hand, there are many activities that are for the sake of something else. On the other hand, there are those activities that are done for their own sake. These latter kinds of activities are those that are properly understood as being leisurely. For example, when someone cuts onions for a meal, the cutting of the onions is not done for their own sake. The easiest way to figure out if something is being done for the sake of another end is to ask, “Why are you doing that.” The onion cutter will answer, “I am doing it so that I can make dinner.” This helps us to see that the cutting of the onions is for the sake of something else. Indeed, even the eating of dinner is for the sake of something else, namely attaining adequate nutrition.

In contrast to these examples, leisurely activities are those that are done for they’re own sake. For example, ask someone who enjoys organ music why he is listening to an organ concert. The answer will almost certainly be, “For the sake of listening to organ music. It is that important and beautiful!” Many things can be considered leisurely, including forms of games that are played merely for their own enjoyment; however, it is important to bear in mind that there is a hierarchy of goods. Some types of leisure are better than others and likely are more preferable.

How should the underlined selection be changed?

Possible Answers:

For example, ask someone who enjoys organ music why they are listening to an organ concert.

For example, you can ask someone who enjoys organ music why they are listening to an organ concert.

For example, ask someone who enjoys organ music why he or she is listening to an organ concert.

For example, you can ask someone who enjoys organ music why he is listening to an organ concert.

NO CHANGE

Correct answer:

For example, ask someone who enjoys organ music why he or she is listening to an organ concert.

Explanation:

As written, the sentence is in the imperative mood. (It is a command.) This is fine, so you need not change that. You should change "he" to be "he or she." This helps to remain gender neutral with the pronouns that refer to "someone." Since this is neutral, the pronoun set after "why" should be neutral as well.

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