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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Grammar Moment: Pronoun-antecedent agreement

Please remember, “they” is plural.

This past week, as I do at the end of every term, I participated in panel grading of portfolios for the Essay Writing classes. It’s a procedure we use to help maintain consistency; I hand my students’ portfolios over to other instructors for grading, and in turn, I get to grade portfolios of other instructors’ students. The idea is that we’re making sure that we’re all looking for the same characteristics, the same standards for what constitutes a passing portfolio.

This year, among the portfolios that I was grading, there was an astonishing epidemic of pronoun misuse – pronoun shifts, unclear references, case errors, and, most glaringly, agreement errors.

The basic principle is fairly simple: The pronoun must match the noun to which it refers. That means that if you have a singular noun, you must use a singular pronoun (he/him, she/her, or it), and if you have a plural noun, you must use a plural pronoun (they/them). The trick for most people is to figure out whether the noun is plural or singular. The easiest way to test this is to construct a sentence using is or are – if you use is, you have a singular noun, and if you use are, you have a plural.

· One item = singular:
The horse is in the barn.

· Two or more items = plural:
The cows are in the pasture.

· Compound using and = plural:
The horse and the mule are in the barn.

· Compound using or or nor: Match what’s closer:
Neither the cows nor the horse is hungry, OR
Neither the horse nor the cows are hungry.

· Indefinite pronoun (everybody, anyone, etc.) = singular:
Everyone is at the party.

· Topic of study or discussion = singular:
Politics is a strange art.

· Group (collective noun) = singular:
The team is enjoying a winning season.

One situation that causes problems is when there is a collective noun. I will often see, for example, a company name followed by the plural pronoun they. But a company is singular. Let’s look at the following sentence:

The Kimberly-Clark Corporation is proud of their products.

First, you can tell that The Kimberly-Clark Corporation is singular, because the writer actually acknowledges that fact by using the singular form of the verb, is. Therefore, the plural pronoun their doesn’t match. Instead, the correct version of the sentence is

The Kimberly-Clark Corporation is proud of its products.

(Slight digression: I’m not necessarily endorsing Kimberly-Clark, but the company often runs ads in writers’ magazines to encourage writers to use its brand names correctly. If you blow your nose, and the tissue into which you blow your nose is a product of some other company, you should not refer to it as a Kleenex. That is a brand name that applies only to one of Kimberly-Clark’s product lines. I go into more details in my lesson on proper capitalization, which I haven’t yet put online but plan to soon.)

The other situation in which the plural pronoun is improperly used is when the writer is trying to be gender-neutral:

A student should keep their backpack neat.

The problem with this sentence is that A student is clearly singular, but their is plural. If we’re going to refer to a singular noun, we need to use a singular pronoun. For many years, the solution was to use the male gender:

A student should keep his backpack neat.

That worked fine for centuries. But then, somewhere around 1970, somebody realized that about half of the human race was NOT male. One solution was to use slashes:

A student should keep his/her backpack neat.

That works, sort of. It’s a little bit awkward; for example, how are you going to pronounce it – “hizzer”? Some people like this kind of slash construction; Pat used to work with engineers who loved the supposed efficiency of slashes. He even came up with a universal all-purpose third-person pronoun to make fun of the engineers’ love of slashes: “s/he/it.” (In case you don’t know how to pronounce it, he’s from Texas.) So, at least when slash constructions come across my desk, that’s what I think of.

OK, so that still leaves us searching for a good pronoun solution. Here’s a possibility:

A student should keep his or her backpack neat.

That’s not so bad, at least in small doses. The occasional his or her or she or he in a paper is fine. It does solve the problem of being grammatically correct while also being gender-neutral. The problem arises when you have a whole paper full of such references. Piling on repeated uses of such phrases makes your writing wordy and tedious, and ultimately, you may lose your reader’s full attention.

Another solution is to use his half the time and her half the time. You may alternate every other paragraph, or you may flip a coin to decide which gender you’re going to use each time. A former teacher of mine recommended a “subtle feminist agenda”: use his when a negative connotation is involved and her when the connotation is positive, as in, “A good driver keeps her car well tuned; a bad driver has no idea what’s going on under his hood.”

But there is one other solution that avoids this whole issue altogether. Remember when I said that you can’t use the plural they to refer to singular nouns? Well, that’s true, but you CAN use they to refer to a PLURAL noun. Instead of fiddling with the pronoun, you can simply go back to the noun and make everything plural:

Students should keep their backpacks neat.

Presto! Problem solved! You now have a pronoun that is gender-neutral, and it agrees with the noun because the noun is plural. Probably 99 percent of all of your pronoun-antecedent problems can be fixed this way, by just making everything plural. Once in a while, you may have to keep to a singular form, but in the vast majority of situations, you can fix everything by going plural.

And believe me, your English teacher will love you for it when you get the pronouns right.

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19 Comments:

Blogger Joe said...

That was a fantastic post!

Sun Dec 11, 10:10:00 AM MST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I prefer to ignore artificially constructed rules created by half-competent grammarians, and use the centuries-old "their" to refer to the singular, gender-unknown subject. If Shakespeare, Jonson, Addison, Johnson, Byron, Austen, Dickens, Thackaray, Wilde, Fowler, Orwell, and many many others did it, it ought to be alright for ordinary people to as well.

Sun Dec 11, 12:52:00 PM MST  
Blogger O Docker said...

WTF, CA, cn u bleve like no 1 duz gd grammar anymor?

Sup w dat?

- O

Sun Dec 11, 07:10:00 PM MST  
Blogger Aser said...

Duh, Anonymous, "alright" is incorrect, just to showcase your astuteness.

Thank you Carol Anne, for this clarifying post.

Sun Dec 11, 07:18:00 PM MST  
Anonymous Jerry said...

I have to take exception to the proscription against using 'they' for singular antecedents. It's been in common use for nigh on 700 years, by people considered to be masters of the English language.

Even Fowler, one the early 20th century's "let's fix English by making up new rules" crowd, loosened up on this one.

A thorough (though strident) discussion is here, including cases where there really is no alternative to 'they' that does not clunk on the ear.

My rule would be "don't use 'they' for singular antecedents if the person who will be reading your work is uptight."

Mon Dec 12, 01:26:00 AM MST  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

Actually, Jer, I do on occasion use "they" to refer to a singular antecedent if there is indeed no elegant way around it. This happens most often with indefinite pronouns, whose meaning often can be construed as plural.

But I absolutely draw the line at a plural pronoun being used to refer to a noun that is clearly singular. What happens in that case is that the reader is left totally confused about who, exactly, "they" are, since there's no clear antecedent for "they." The problem is compounded when there are other nouns that actually are plural, to which "they" might refer, or when the writer has already referred to an antecedent-less "they" that may refer to some vague government or public entity that has not been defined. Most of the portfolios that I read that triggered this blog post fell into the category of confusion caused by improper pronoun usage.

So instead of "Don't use 'they' for singular antecedents if the person who will be reading your work is uptight," I would rephrase it, "Don't use 'they' for singular antecedents unless there is no reasonable alternative, and be sure to do so in such a way as not to confuse the reader."

Mon Dec 12, 02:32:00 AM MST  
Anonymous tillerman said...

It's not widely known that Kleenex was developed from Kotex.

Mon Dec 12, 07:58:00 PM MST  
Blogger Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

Carol Anne, you are the most dangerous blogger on line. Potentially lethal....

Mon Dec 12, 08:28:00 PM MST  
Blogger Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

BTW, can you tell me what the singular of suds is?

Mon Dec 12, 08:29:00 PM MST  
Blogger Baydog said...

Sud, Doc. And who's this Tillerman character all of a sudden?

I find that alternating pronoun genders works as well as making them plural.

WV: imitypes. Flatterers?

Mon Dec 12, 09:31:00 PM MST  
Blogger Harlean Carpenter said...

What Jerry said, with one small addition. I've always found it amusing that English has a perfectly good non-gender-specific singular pronoun, "its", that we're perfectly happy to slap on every living thing on the planet except ourselves. Anyone writing about a dog or cat and unsure of the animal's sex doesn't even blink before using "its" and, when you get right down to it, we're animals just as much as they are, aren't we? :)

Tue Dec 13, 02:55:00 PM MST  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

Interesting sidebar about animals ... the Associated Press makes a distinction between when to call an animal "it" vs. "he" or "she": If the name of the animal is not known, it's "it"; if the animal's name is known, it's "he" or "she" as appropriate.

Tue Dec 13, 09:31:00 PM MST  
Blogger Baydog said...

So if my cat's name is Chris.........

Tue Dec 13, 09:49:00 PM MST  
Blogger O Docker said...

I must admit this was the one rule that had me cringing too, but I think a class of English students should learn what the rules are first and then choose to bend or break them after school's out.

In the blog, I'll often break the rules purposely to make the language less stuffy. If it sounds like something Emily Titesphinker would insist on (not upon, thank you), then I'm going the other way.

There is some nonsense up with which I shall not put.

Tue Dec 13, 09:49:00 PM MST  
Blogger Harlean Carpenter said...

There was actually another thing I meant to mention in my first comment, but I got distracted by laundry. There are some instances where it's not possible to change the noun to a plural, and the last thing you want to do is use "his or her" because it creates formality where you want suspense. And those instances are something that you, as a mystery writer, can probably appreciate more than just about anyone else; sometimes you have to refer to the killer without giving anything away. So in a sentence like "But the murderer didn't realize their fingerprints were all over the windowsill", I think 'their' as the pronoun is really the best choice.

Tue Dec 13, 11:35:00 PM MST  
Anonymous Chris said...

The blogger didn't realize that its/ their/ his or her grammatical mistakes were all over its/ their/ his or her blog.

Wed Dec 14, 10:01:00 AM MST  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

Yes, Harlean, there are indeed situations where the plural will not work, and in which using "they" becomes necessary. Indefinite pronouns and collective nouns are the most common situations for such -- and the rules actually do allow for a collective noun to be treated as plural if all of the members of a group are acting individually instead of as a unit: "The team are running around all over the field as if they all have different playbooks."

But I agree with O Docker that the students have to learn the rules first before learning when/how to bend the rules in an appropriate way. And "A parent should never spank their child because they learn that its alright to hit someone to solve their problems" is NOT bending the rules in an appropriate way.

Wed Dec 14, 11:43:00 AM MST  
Blogger Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

"... it's alright to hit someone..."?

All right is the preferred.

Wed Dec 14, 08:50:00 PM MST  
Blogger Carol Anne said...

And the student should also have used "it's," as you did, instead of "its."

Fri Dec 16, 11:07:00 PM MST  

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