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When They Is a Cop-out
Ours is a language of traps and pitfalls. Anyone serious about writing in English has to take on problems no one has ever quite solved.
One of the most obstinate of these, as inescapable as it is confounding, concerns singular pronouns that have plural connotations (everyone, nobody, anyone, somebody, etc.).
Even fine writers on occasion succumb to the temptation of using they to refer to a singular pronoun. What would you do with this sentence: Someone left his? her? his or her? their? book on my desk. For decades it was customary to say someone left his book, the assumption being that his really meant his or her (in the same way mankind comprises both
men and women). But that stopped being acceptable in the 1960s—the Women’s Liberation movement was having none of it.
Many writers nowadays hold their noses and go with his or her. It’s hard to find a less elegant solution, but grammatically, someone left his or her book does the job; however, someone left their book, although taboo to purists, is what you’d most likely
hear in conversation.
Now consider this technically correct sentence: I asked everybody, but he wouldn’t tell me. Anybody who would write that must be tone-deaf,
perverse, facetious, or fanatical. What good is a “technically correct” sentence that is so silly and confusing? Changing it to but he or she wouldn’t tell me is hardly an improvement. If you chose to avoid this mess by writing but they wouldn’t tell me, it would be hard to blame you. But if good grammar is important, how about I asked everybody, but no one would tell me.
Last November, a West Coast newspaper editorial dealt with the problem this way: “Under California law, the governor is allowed to choose a
replacement for a statewide-elected official who vacates her post midterm.” Fair enough, but though the motive is laudable, the sentence feels
somehow forced. Why not replace “vacates her post” with “leaves office.”
Let’s try to rewrite the following sentences and mollify the curmudgeons …
• Read a book to a child. Maybe they’ll do something good with their life.
Rewrite: Read a book to a child. Maybe that youngster will accomplish something in life.
• If anyone wants to become the next David Letterman, they won’t do it by becoming the last David Letterman.
Rewrite: Anyone who wants to become the next David Letterman won’t do it by becoming the last David Letterman.
• The greatest courage will be required from Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, or each will bequeath to their successors a much more dangerous world.
The greatest courage will be required from Angela Merkel and Barack Obama, or they will each bequeath to their successors a much more dangerous world.
English scholars say that using they to agree with singular pronouns can be traced back at least seven centuries. But that doesn’t mean
it’s all right to do so. It simply means that there’s nothing new about avoiding challenges when we can take the easy way out.
Because of the e-newsletter's large readership, please submit your English usage questions through GrammarBook.com's “Grammar Blog.”
How would you deal with pronoun inconsistencies in these sentences? Compare your solutions with ours in the answers section.
1. It isn’t feasible for each one to go through arbitration to get their money back.
2. What if someone asks you what you’re doing at their car?
3. What we don’t want is for someone to turn their unit into a full-time vacation inn.
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We want to alert all our newsletter readers and visitors to our website that we will soon begin updating the English Rules section of GrammarBook.com to reflect the contents of the eleventh edition of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. These revisions will take place over the next couple of months.
We researched the leading reference books on American English grammar and punctuation including The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, Fowler's Modern English Usage, Bernstein's The Careful Writer, and many others. As before, we will provide rules, guidance, and examples based on areas of general agreement among these authorities. Where the authorities differ, we will emphasize guidance and provide options to follow based on your purpose in writing, with this general advice: be consistent.
Following are more selections from a perverse set of rules that are guilty of the very mistakes they seek to prevent. English teachers, students, scientists, and writers have been circulating these self-contradictory rules for more than a century.
Rules for Writing Good: Writing Tips
1. About sentence fragments.
2. Don't verb nouns.
3. Don't use commas, that aren't necessary.
Pop Quiz Answers
1. It isn’t feasible for each one to go through arbitration to get a full refund.
2. What if someone asks you, “What are you doing at my car?”
3. What we don’t want is for owners to turn their units into full-time vacation inns.
Learn all about who and whom, affect and effect, subjects and verbs, adjectives and adverbs, commas, semicolons, quotation marks, and much more by just sitting back and enjoying these easy-to-follow lessons. Tell your colleagues (and boss), children, teachers, and friends. Click here to watch.