Each person ate their own food at the beach. If you see nothing wrong with the above sentence —besides the fact that it would be nice if some sharing occurred — then you probably won’t care much about the contents of this column.
In fact, even if you spotted the error, you still might not care much about the contents of this column — but I’m guessing that there are quite a few of you who still care about grammatical issues.
The first sentence of this column technically should say, “Each person ate his or her own food at the beach” because “each person” is singular.
The days, though, when a plural pronoun refers only to a plural antecedent (the word that comes before the pronoun somewhere in the sentence and to which the pronoun refers) are numbered. In fact, in some cases, a plural pronoun is either preferred or mandated when the antecedent is singular.
I was talking to some old high school friends and their spouses last weekend, and the subject turned to just this subject. (We’re a pretty exciting group, right? I bet you wish you could join our scintillating conversations!)
The spouse of one of my friends is a lawyer, and she said that use of “they” is mandated at her law firm for contracts, etc., to avoid using gender-specific pronouns (he and she) that might be either incorrect or not embraced by the people to whom they refer. And another friend, who works for the government, said the word “they” is either mandated or preferred in reports.
In fact, the style guide for journalism, which is used for this newspaper, notes that use of the word “they” might be acceptable in certain circumstances.
I understand the attractiveness of this option. Certainly, it neatly handles gender issues. And it also neatly handles the issue of clunky sounding sentences that use a “his or her” construction. And, of course, it neatly handles the issue of primary and secondary school students who just aren’t good at grammar.
But I have to say that I am not happy about this turn of events. You might be thinking, “Of course not. She is a former English teacher.”
Yes, I am a former English teacher, which means that I understand that change and evolution are natural in language. I just wish that the changes and evolution wouldn’t change our standards of grammatical correctness.
In documents such as contracts, it is possible to avoid the whole problem of singular and plural by continually repeating a person’s name. For example: “Johnson wants to transfer Johnson’s land to Johnson’s neighbor, Smith.”
This is a bit ungraceful for an everyday piece of writing. In such a case, it would be nice if our language evolved to create a completely new singular pronoun that could be used instead of “he” or “she” and wasn’t as offensive-sounding as “it” when used to refer to a person.
Young people are creative nowadays, especially in terms of language. With the increase in the use of techie modes of communication such as texting and messaging apps, new words or new spellings of old words are being created daily. So, I don’t think it’s a stretch to ask this generation to consider the problem.
How about it, all of you students who are celebrating the demise of pronoun-antecedent agreement? Any ideas for a new pronoun?
I have faith in these young people. I’m thinking that each one can create “their” own interesting suggestion.
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