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.

Rewrite: 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.

 

Pop Quiz

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.

 

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.

Posted on Monday, April 28, 2014, at 6:40 pm

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2 Comments on When They Is a Cop-out

2 responses to “When They Is a Cop-out”

  1. Joseph S. says:

    I’m an amateur grammarian and the apparently total ignorance of the rules about agreement in number between subject and verb exhibited in today’s communications – including those at the highest levels – sickens me.

    However, the awkwardness you cite in your example for Rule 3 is, I think, contrived:

    Rule 3. The verb in an or, either/or, or neither/nor sentence agrees with the noun or pronoun closest to it.

    Examples:
    Neither the plates nor the serving bowl goes on that shelf.
    Neither the serving bowl nor the plates go on that shelf.

    This rule can lead to bumps in the road. For example, if I is one of two (or more) subjects, it could lead to this odd sentence:

    Awkward: Neither she, my friends, nor I am going to the festival.

    … is awkward because you’ve extended the requirement for agreement to the person of the subject and verb. I’ve never heard of this. I think the proper usage is: “Neither I am nor is she or my friends going to…”

    • Of course that awkward sentence is contrived. But it isn’t all that far-fetched. We contrived it to illustrate a point: that neither-nor and either-or sentences sometimes present unusual problems with verb agreement. Sorry if we didn’t make that clear.

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