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. :)
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