Grammar How Did They Get In Here? |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

How Did They Get In Here?

Writers today have problems keeping their sentences internally consistent. This is especially true of print journalists. Because of staff cutbacks at financially challenged newspapers, many articles are proofread hastily, if at all.

Combine that with the shocking decline in Americans’ English language skills over the last fifty years or so and you get sentences unworthy of the average sixth-grader in 1963. Here is a sentence from a recent article in a major metropolitan newspaper on the West Coast: “Each side in the condo fight has spent more than $350,000 on their campaigns …”

Everything is fine until that jarring “their” at the end. Go back to the subject: “each side.” The writer is talking about two things but is taking them one at a time—each side has spent, not have spent. So writing “their” confounds the ground rules of the sentence. It’s like setting the table with a fork and then eating with your hands.

This is an easy one to fix: “Each side in the condo fight has spent more than $350,000 on its campaign…”



The following sentences or fragments from recent print or broadcast media reflect contemporary bad habits. Can you fix them?

1. McDonalds is doing everything they can to shift costs to operators.
2. There needs to be better screening and a more foolproof monitoring system.
3. East Haven, Conn. plane crash …
4. No listener is ever happy with how much time they get.
5. He didn’t believe in the peoples’ right to know.



These are suggested answers. There may be more than one way to fix some of these items.

1. McDonalds is doing everything it can to shift costs to operators.
2. There need to be better screening and a foolproof monitoring system. (In addition to using the plural verb need to agree with the subjects screening and system, the redundant more has been dropped.)
Better screening and a foolproof monitoring system are needed.
3. East Haven, Conn., plane crash …
4. No listeners are ever happy with how much time they get.
5. He didn’t believe in the people’s right to know.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

4 responses to “How Did They Get In Here?”

  1. Jesse says:

    Why suggest that a non-plural use of “they” is due to the inability of “financially challenged newspapers” to pay competent journalists? I find it ill-informed and irresponsible to publish an article on the uses and misuses of the pronoun without a single mention of our evolving language and the dire need for a non-gendered singular pronoun–which has always existed but perhaps never been addressed or accepted as widely as it is now. (And no, “it” is not acceptable when speaking of a human being).

    The English language we speak today exists because of a so-called “decline in Americans’ English language skills” over the course of many centuries, yet it is not so shocking. This is the course of all languages, and English is certainly no different. If you’d like to admonish the increasing use of “literally” to mean “figuratively” or some other heinous language evolution, be my guest. Your insistence that “they” is only and always a plural pronoun, however, leaves me with three guesses about the intentions of this article:

    1. A genuine ignorance that this use of the pronoun exists (doubtful, given that you are grammar professionals);
    2. an obstinate personal preference of the author about this use of the pronoun; or
    3. an avoidance due to a political charge you fear your readership would perceive in this article if it discussed the need for a non-gendered pronoun in our language.

    I would love to see a follow-up article that seriously addresses the singular use of “they” in a way that is neither dismissive nor color-blind to the current political and social context. English does not have to exist in a time capsule. It is a living, breathing thing that should reflect the needs of the humans that speak it.

    • says:

      We can see that you are passionate about this topic. However, this particular article is aimed at errors in simple subject-verb agreement, sans gender, that can easily be fixed. Please see our articles How Can They Be Singular? and Singular They Part II, which greatly expand our treatment of the singular they. We will reprint these articles in upcoming newsletters in order to round out this topic.

  2. Wes says:

    I don’t understand 3. in the quiz.

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