Pronoun Abuse

I’ve had it, people. Nouns and pronouns should agree, as we’ve discussed—briefly—before. According to an article (“All-Purpose Pronoun”) in the New York Times, this makes me a “grammarian” (with the old-fashioned, old fogey part of the description missing but clearly implied).


Someone is quoted saying, “Can’t we just accept that they is singular?”

No. No, we cannot. I’m sorry we don’t have a gender neutral singular pronoun, folks, but we don’t. And when I read things like these—all examples from recent news stories—I just shake my head:

• Every writer is in a different situation. Every writer [singular] has to evaluate their [plural] three P’s: Platform, Product, Promotion.

• That this person [singular] didn’t stay silent but called someone they [plural] trusted, their father, suggests that they were trying to understand what it was that they saw. There’s also maybe some shame, like they felt like they didn’t have the ability to stop the abuse or that because they first reacted to the horror and stepped away they have some self-blame. [A zillion plurals. Sheesh.]

• A writer [singular], in order to master their [plural] craft, must be willing to change.

That last one was written by someone in the Biz, who (ahem) should have known better.

It is very, very common to see plural pronouns paired with singular nouns. But for grammatical correctness, pronouns and the nouns they refer to (their antecedents) should agree; in other words, singular nouns (that person) require singular pronouns (he, she).

But it’s awkward when the gender is unspecified: When the pupil is ready, his or her teacher will come. As you all know, I personally would opt for the “universal masculine”: When the pupil is ready, his teacher will come. If this bothers you, you’ll have to recast the sentence: A teacher will turn up when the pupil is ready to learn. (It’s just an example; I know it sucks. The adage, actually, goes like this: When the pupil is ready, the teacher will come.)

Furthermore—and I know y’all hate this, but it’s true—the indefinite pronouns anyone, anybody, everyone, everybody, someone, somebody, no one, and nobody are always singular. This is just the way it is. Learn it so we can move on, please.

Yes, I know it wasn’t always this way; one linguist says the earliest specific condemnation of their as a singular dates only from 1795, although the Times places it fifty years earlier.

But that was then and this is now.

Obviously, this particular type of pronoun abuse is in wide use (not in anything I edit, though). And language is a living thing. The Chicago Manual of Style issues a new edition on average every seven years precisely because language—and grammar, its structure—is a living thing. So there may come a day when this practice is accepted as standard English.

I hope I’m retired by then. :)

Tweet:  Nouns and pronouns should agree. Stop using “they”!
Tweet:  Pronoun abuse is widespread. Stop the madness!

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  1. Alice Stegemann
    Posted 30 April, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    Preach it, sister!

    • Jamie
      Posted 30 April, 2012 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      We shall get along famously. :)

  2. Gail
    Posted 1 May, 2012 at 6:23 am | Permalink


  3. Posted 1 May, 2012 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    You know how I feel.

  4. Posted 2 May, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    I’m catching up on email and blogs after a recent trip, Jamie. I SO resonate with this one! I just opened a galley for review and was turned off almost immediately by the author’s use of “their” with a singular antecedent. I can only hope the error was caught in editing, but based on recent observation, that’s unlikely.

    • Jamie
      Posted 2 May, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      I find it very distressing that things like this are completely missed by (dare I say it) some younger editors. :(

    • Jamie
      Posted 2 May, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      The third bad example in the post above came from a freelance editor’s website. (sigh)

  5. Posted 2 May, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    YES!!! Also, no offense intended to anyone, can’t we all agree to stop dropping articles, indefinite articles, and pronouns from the beginning of sentences? It is NOT conversational (and so what, if perpetuates error?); it is NOT economical, although web mail enables it; it is lazy. And wrong.

    “Wanted to say Hi.”
    “Won’t believe what I saw!”
    “Wonder if you like this.”

    Lazy. Pernicious. Wrong.

  6. Posted 5 August, 2012 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    In brief, your problem with “they” as a singular third-person pronoun could be described as the conflict between grammatical correctness and political correctness!

  7. Posted 18 October, 2012 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    I knew there was a reason I prefer to write in the first or second person. As a professional writer, the more time I spend reading online, the worse my grammar becomes and the faster I read (not necessarily a good thing!). This is a very nice reminder. I only wish I looked at it yesterday, before my article deadline :), just to make sure.

    • Jamie
      Posted 18 October, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Amanda! I’m so glad to see you here! :)

  8. Posted 10 December, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Now, I ‘m just going to start by saying I really love the song I’m about to quote, but I sing it differently than Miss Swift, even when I’m singing along with her.

    ‘Cause when you’re fifteen and somebody tells you they love you
    You’re gonna believe them
    And when you’re fifteen feeling like there’s nothing to figure out
    Well, count to ten, take it in
    This is life before you know who you’re gonna be
    At fifteen

    Okay, so this bothers me so much for two reasons. First is the topic of this post to which I am responding. Second, Taylor Swift likes boys. She is singing this song. And she’s singing in part about a girl named Abigail who “gave everything she had to a boy who changed his mind.” So why, oh why, aren’t the lyrics:

    ‘Cause when you’re fifteen and somebody tells you HE love you
    You’re gonna believe HIM
    And when you’re fifteen feeling like there’s nothing to figure out
    Well, count to ten, take it in

    It sounds better, it’s more accurate, and “him” still sort of almost rhymes with “in,” if that was the intent. It rhymes better than “them” anyway.

    Okay, rant over. But this one’s been in me for a while. Whenever this song comes on my iPod, I will be singing the grammatically correct version.

    • Jamie
      Posted 10 December, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      The lyrics aren’t correct, I suspect, because songwriters probably don’t have editors. But I’m so pleased I’ve given you ammunition: sing it loud, sing it proud, dude. :)

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