Grammar Today


My children, today I shall discuss the increasing misuses of pronoun/antecedent agreement. I hope to clarify a few grammar rules for you here today.

A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun (or pronoun), its "antecedent." The pronoun and its antecedent must agree in number. That is, if the antecedent is singular, the pronoun must be singular. If the antecedent is plural, the pronoun must be plural. See the following examples:

The grammar teacher despaired of her students ever understanding pronoun/antecedent agreement.

Students often drive their grammar teachers to distraction.

Now, this sounds simple enough. But problems become evident when we throw indefinite pronouns into the mix.

An indefinite pronoun refers to nonspecific persons or things. They include anybody, anyone, anything, each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, neither, nobody, no one, somebody, something.

An indefinite pronoun is treated as singular in number, and thus must have a singular pronoun referring to it, as in the following:

Someone left her panties on my desk yesterday.

Today, the tendency is to use the plural their instead of the singular her or his:

Someone left their panties on my desk yesterday. WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!!!

This misuage is most likely because English does not have a gender-neutral pronoun to use when the speaker does not know the gender of the person referred to with the indefinite pronoun. I suspect that the language will change to include this technically incorrect usage someday. Till then, however, one must use the singular his or her or, if one does not know the gender of the person involved, the awkward but grammatically and politically correct his or her.

But a better way to go is to revise the sentence so that the problem of pronoun/antecedent agreement is obviated by substituting a plural antecedent. Then the plural pronoun "their" is appropriate. I know what you are going to say: "But Sister, no one talks like that! We'll sound stuck up!" To which I reply that it is better to be correct and stand alone against the tide of barbarism than to be incorrect and become one of the barbarians!

My children, I have many more things to say about the small but eminently useful pronoun. Next I shall tackle the vexing problems of confusing the subjective and objective case pronouns. Till then,

Good day and good grammar!

Sister Mary Grammatica, SGJ

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