When you come across possessive pronouns such as yours, theirs, his, hers and its, check to see whether they agree with their antecedents in number and gender. The antecedent for possessive pronouns is the noun or pronoun that is doing the possessing.
Margaret put her coat on, and Paul put his on, too.
In the sentence above, there is one possessive pronoun, his, which refers to Paul. Paul is a masculine, singular noun, so we use the corresponding pronoun his – also masculine and singular. The word her, which refers to Margaret, is a possessive adjective because it modifies the noun coat. Contrast this with the pronoun his, which stands in for the noun phrase Paul’s coat.
Most possessive pronouns are used sloppily in spoken language, so take special note when you see one mixed in among other pronouns. Sometimes, the antecedent will be another pronoun.
Possessive Pronouns with Personal Pronoun Antecedents
Possessive pronouns sometimes have personal pronoun antecedents. When this happens, the possessive pronoun needs to match its antecedent in person and number, but not case. Personal pronouns have three different cases: subjective, objective, and possessive. If the antecedent of a pronoun indicating possession is another pronoun (in either subjective or objective form), use the possessive form of that pronoun.
Consider the following sentence:
I brought my beer, and I’m glad to see that some of you brought theirs.
This sentence contains three different pronouns: I, you, and theirs. However, there are only two antecedents: the speaker (I) and her group of friends (you/theirs). The speaker (I) correctly refers to her beer as my beer, but she is mistaken in calling her friends’ beer theirs. Because she is addressing them as you, she must refer to her friends’ beer using the possessive pronoun yours.
|If this personal pronoun is the antecedent…||Use this possessive pronoun|
|First Person Singular||I or me||mine|
|Second Person Singular||you||yours|
|Third Person Singular||he or him
she or her
|First Person Plural||we or us||ours|
|Second Person Plural||you||yours|
|Third Person Plural||they or them||theirs|
The personal pronoun I is paired with the possessive pronoun mine because both have the same antecedent, the speaker, who refers to herself in the first-person singular. Likewise, the speaker must refer to her group of friends using the second-person plural personal and possessive pronouns you and yours, respectively.
- Incorrect: I brought my beer, and I’m glad to see that some of you brought theirs.
- Correct: I brought my beer, and I’m glad to see that some of you brought yours.
As with subject and object pronouns, you must be able to both recognize a possessive pronoun and remember the possessive form. See if you can spot the pronoun error in the following sentence:
If anyone comes over to take your name, make sure that you take theirs.
Remember, anyone is a singular pronoun. However, the possessive pronoun theirs is plural. You need the singular form of the pronoun his or hers.
Note: This error has become common because of the demand for political correctness; instead of writing “his” or “hers,” people will often just write “theirs.” Either “his” or “hers” alone is fine if you don’t want or need to specify gender, but writing “his or hers” is also acceptable:
- Incorrect: If anyone comes over to take your name, make sure that you take theirs.
- Correct: If anyone comes over to take your name, make sure that you take his or hers.
- Correct: If anyone comes over to take your name, make sure that you take his.
- Correct: If anyone comes over to take your name, make sure that you take hers.
Working with Impersonal Pronoun Antecedents
On the GMAT, the pronouns one, you, and they – the “impersonal pronouns” – are sometimes improperly matched with their possessive and reflexive forms. Impersonal pronouns are a kind of indefinite pronoun, and they are used to refer to an unspecified, generic person:
One must never disobey one’s parents.
Here, one and one’s are used in a generic sense: they are not referring to a specific individual, but rather any individual. The word one’s modifies the noun parents: one’s parents. It is the possessive adjective form of the impersonal pronoun “one.”
Here is another example:
You should have yours ready when you get there.
Once again, the pronoun is used in a generic sense: you refers to any individual who might be reading the sentence. The word yours stands in for a noun phrase: yours = “your [noun].” It is the possessive pronoun form of the impersonal pronoun you.
Impersonal pronouns also take a reflexive form. Reflexive pronouns are a class of pronouns that refer to (and sometimes emphasize) the antecedent. They are the object of the verb and refer back to the subject.
One should love oneself.
Here, the pronoun one is matched with the reflexive pronoun oneself, which is the reflexive form of the impersonal pronoun one.
Forms of Impersonal Pronouns
|If this impersonal pronoun is the antecedent…||Use this possessive pronoun||Use this reflexive pronoun||Use this possessive adjective|
Working with Impersonal Pronouns: You or One?
You may have heard that using you is less proper than using one, but on the GMAT, all that matters is consistency: pronouns with the same antecedent must match in terms of number, gender, and person. There is no word-choice preference between you and one — they have the same meaning when acting as impersonal pronouns.
- Incorrect: One should have their teeth checked every six months.
- Correct: One should have one’s teeth checked every six months.
- Correct: You should have your teeth checked every six months.
- Incorrect: One should take your responsibilities seriously.
- Correct: One should take one’s responsibilities seriously.
- Correct: You should take your responsibilities seriously.
The rule for all indefinite pronouns is consistency: do not mix and match indefinite pronouns that have the same antecedent.
Summary: Possessive Pronouns in Three Steps
1. Identify any pronouns in the sentence indicating possession.
2. Identify the antecedent of each pronoun (noun or pronoun).
3. Check to see that the pronoun is in the possessive case and agrees with its antecedent in number, gender, and person.
Watch out for:
- Possessive adjectives vs. possessive pronouns
- Reflexive pronouns
- Personal pronoun antecedents
- Impersonal pronoun antecedents