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.