NB: I write this blog post by hand as I sit in JFK airport's Terminal 1, awaiting my Kid's return flight from his big Russian adventure. I'm totally freaked out by flying and, therefore, anxiously praying for my son's safe arrival. The criminal grammatical offense against which I'm preparing to rail makes me very cranky. Anxious + Cranky = Bitchfest of Biblical Proportions. If you happen to be guilty of this gross malfeasance, do not take my condemnation personally—simply repent and resolve to sin no more. And maybe offer a prayer/sacrifice to your deity of choice in thanks for that fact that I'm not PMS-ing as well.
The heinous crime against grammar: using plural pronouns to refer back to singular nouns or noun phrases.
First, a bit of review:
A pronoun takes the place of a noun, or a noun phrase, yeah? (Yeah.)
Cat (singular noun) -> he/she/it (singular pronouns)
A black cat (singular noun phrase) -> he/she/it (singular pronouns)
Cats (plural noun & long-running musical) -> they/them (plural pronouns)
Those black cats (plural noun phrase) -> they/them (plural pronouns)
If you wish to use the above nouns/pronouns correctly, your pronouns must agree with your nouns or noun phrases. Which is to say, you must use a singular pronoun with a singular noun, and a plural pronoun with a plural noun.
Correct singular noun phrase sentence:
If a black cat crosses a road at night, it might get run over.
Correct plural noun phrase sentence:
If those black cats cross a road at night, they might get run over.
With this in mind, can you identify what's wrong with the following sentence?
If a black cat crosses the road at night, they might get run over.
What's wrong is that the plural pronoun (they) doesn't agree with the singular noun phrase (a black cat). Also, the cat's owner is clearly irresponsible and should take pains to secure it for the evening.
That one was easy, right? Sure it was. Now that your confidence has been bolstered by one successful exercise, let's try another.
What's wrong with this sentence?
1. If a guy buys you something expensive, they must've done something wrong.
Well, apart from the rather cynical viewpoint, the plural pronoun (they) disagrees with the singular noun phrase (a guy).
What's wrong with this one?
2. When a woman goes shoe shopping, you won't hear from them for hours.
Besides being a sexist stereotype, the sentence once again features a plural pronoun (them) that doesn't agree with the singular noun phrase (a woman).
Can you see what's wrong with this one?
3. Sometimes, a person needs to hear that they are loved.
The problem isn't that the person in question is overly clingy from lack of attention when in the cradle, but that the damned plural pronoun (they) is pissed off at the bloody singular noun (a person).
Not to put too fine a point on it, but plural pronouns do not fucking get along with singular nouns/noun phrases. They just don't. Think of them as being locked in a blood feud, OK? Think of plural pronouns as the goddamn Montagues and singular nouns/noun phrases as the motherfucking Capulets if it helps—the bottom line is that they don't go together like rama lama lama, ka-ding-a-da ding-de-dong.
In the first two sentences, the following pronouns should have been used:
1. If a guy buys you something expensive, he must have done something wrong.
2. When a woman goes shoe shopping, you won't hear from her for hours.
Sure, they're still cynical and sexist, but at least they're grammatically correct, for fuck's sake.
Example #3 can be tricky for some, in this modern, politically correct era, 'cause folks crap their pants at the thought of favoring one sex over the other. Funk that noise. if you know that the person in #3 is a man, it's perfectly acceptable to use "he," and if it's a woman, use "she." But if you don't know the sex of the person in question, the following options work within the bounds of all that is right and proper in Grammar Land, and all convey the same basic concept:
Sometimes, a person needs to hear that he or she is loved.
Sometimes, you need to hear that you are loved.
Sometimes, people need to hear that they are loved.
Whew! All that ranting exhausted me. Yet there's one more scenario which desperately needs addressing. Take a look at this last example, and mind where you tread, for the terrain is deceptive:
Everybody likes to solve a problem for themselves.
First, there are plenty of lazy people in the world (of which I am one), who don't want to do a damned thing, if it can be avoided. Second, the words everybody and themselves are pronouns. In this sentence, themselves refers back to everybody BUT themselves is plural and everybody is singular. No, I'm not high. (If only!) I know the "every" part can throw people off, but it's still just one singular "body." Not one singular person, but a singular body of people.
I know. It's like you just swallowed the red pill, isn't it? You'll be OK. Take a moment to recover.
Other pronouns which seem plural but are actually singular include:
- Anybody, Anyone
- Somebody, Someone
More indefinite pronouns like these exist, but you're probably a bit dizzy right now, so rather than enumerate them, I'll give you some options for expressing that last example correctly:
One likes to solve a problem for oneself.
You like to solve a problem for yourself.
People like to solve problems for themselves.
If you don't buy what I'm selling, you're welcome to check the following links to see if these cats back me up. (They totally do.)
- Get It Write: Singular Indefinite Pronouns: Part I
- Pronouns: Agreement with Antecedent
- Look! It's a List of Pronouns!
Well, peeps, the eagle has landed, and I'm now trembling with rage, so I'd better bugger off. Thank you for flying Groovy Grammar Airlines. Please accept my best wishes for a pleasurable stay.