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07/18/2012

My Kingdom for an Indeterminate Singular Pronoun

Everyone needs to pick up their toys.

If anyone calls, tell them I’ll be back this evening.

I’ve never seen anybody so crazy about their cat.

When somebody has a question, they should raise their hand.

Guess what? All these sentences are technically grammatically incorrect according to Standard American English. Can you spot the problem? It’s that the words “everyone,” “anyone,” “anybody,” and “somebody” are singular, and the pronouns used in each sentence are all plural. There’s so much to be frustrated about here, we don’t even know where to begin.

These messed-up singular subjects are as good a place as any to start. Words like “everyone” and “everybody” certainly sound plural, don’t they? Too bad for us, but they’re not. It’s easier to understand this if you insert the word “single,” making them “every single one” and “every single body.” You can do the same for the others: “any single one,” “any single body,” and so on, though these are easier to recognize as singular in the first place, since they don’t seem to be referring to large numbers of people.

So, now that you accept these subjects as singular, you understand that they need singular, not plural, pronouns to refer to them. “They,” “their,” and “them” are plural, which makes the sentences incorrect. Which pronouns should we use instead, then? Our only choice, if we want to retain the original sentence structure, is to use the clunky and overly-formal sounding “he or she” or appropriate variation:

Everyone needs to pick up his or her toys.

If anyone calls, tell him or her I’ll be back this evening.

I’ve never seen anyone so crazy about his or her cat.

When somebody has a question, he or she should raise his or her hand.

Of course, these “correct” sentences are cringe-worthy, especially that last one. To avoid sounding like a Victorian schoolmarm, you could rewrite the sentences to dispose of the problem altogether. This involves changing the subject to one that’s plural:

All the kids need to pick up their toys.

If people call, tell them I’ll be back this evening.

I’ve seen folks who are crazy about their cats, but this takes the cake.

When students have questions, they should raise their hands.

So that fixes the problem and satisfies grammar sticklers. However, what your English teacher probably didn’t tell you is that the use of singular “they” has a long and respectable history, dating from the 14th century and used by Jane Austen and Chaucer, among many other celebrated writers. It wasn’t until the early 18th century that grammarians, following Latin grammar rules, decided to frown upon it. And so we are stuck with an arbitrary rule forbidding the use of singular “they.” We would encourage you to go ahead and use singular “they,” “their” and “them” all you want, but you may run into a difficult grader or a cranky recipient of your business memo. Suddenly, you’re viewed as incompetent, in the area of grammar, anyway. So to be safe, we advise sticking to the rule in your writing and professional communication, and reserving singular “they” for everyday conversation and informal writing.

Posted by: ADMIN

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