Monday, July 15, 2013

Snarks ~ Pronouns Gone Rogue

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
  • Everyone
  • Nobody
  • 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.)

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.


  1. Hope your boy has arrived safe and sound by the time you read this! :)

    The incorrect use of the words "myself" and "literally" are my pet grammar peeves at the moment. Oh, and "should of" instead of "should've".

    I read some sample pages of a vampire novel on Amazon recently and the protagonist described the vamp as having "fowl" breath. Trying to figure out whether he meant to say "foul" breath or whether the vamp actually had chicken breath. ;)

    1. He did, thank God! And thank you for the good thoughts!

      LOL, "fowl" breath. HAH!!!

  2. Well done! This was a pleasure to read. Of course, I already knew all this. Your particular flair with words just suited the topic so well (one of many pet peeves of mine)! I'll be sure to come to you if I need to provide a good smackdown for any of my others.

    Hope the boy arrived home safe and sound and not too russiafied (it's a word, I'm sure).

    1. While I'll rage against grammar debacles, I always applaud 1) Word/phrase coinage and 2) Puns. :-)

      Yep, he's back, fine and dandy! <3

  3. Dobro pozhalovat'! (That's welcome back in Russian.) I had to use Google Translate, cause my Russian is kind of rusty. The only thing I remember from my college days is "Bez vodki i khoroshikh druzey ya ne khochu zhit'", which means, "Without vodka and good friends, I don't want to live."

    On to more serious things. How do you stand on subject/verb agreement with words such as "family". Growing up, like most folks, I was taught:

    "The family is going to see a movie." (In this case, the family is treated as a single unit.)

    Then in college, all of a sudden, they pulled out this one:

    "The family are going to see a movie." (In this case, the family is treated as a collection of individuals.)

    1. That's a good saying!

      To address your question, my gut reaction was that a family is a singular unit. But then I did a bit of research and came to realize that it can be plural, *depending*. If the family is acting as a unit (the folks in it are doing the same thing), it's singular. If each family member's doing something different, then it's plural. Crazy, huh? Though I kinda get it...

      The source of this info.

  4. I hope your son arrived safely and had a wonderful time!!! Love this post. One of my pet peeves involves qualifying the word "unique" with "very" and "the most." Unique means one-of-a-kind. You cannot have something that is "very one-of-a-kind" or "the most one-of-a-kind." Alas, this is a battle I'm destined to lose.

    1. He did, thank you. And LOL, you're right, of course. I wonder if that's just an American thing or if it's crossed the pond...

  5. I hate flying too. I'd much rather road trip it... Which, I guess, is impossible to do to Russia. Also, because submarines are way worse than planes! So much can go wrong!!

    I'm glad he made it back safely!



    1. Thanks, Valerie. The idea of traveling by submarine fills me with dread, and yet I wonder: are there likely to be any motherfuckin snakes on my motherfuckin submarine???

  6. Dear Mina,

    I shall bring delight to your good self by using a collective pronoun sentence. We all love you! Although, I'm telling you that grammar anarchy is the way forward! :)

    Also note that your son has returned safely. I know of such worry. As far as flying, may I suggest "Blog Air"? The blogger's favourite airline :)

    1. Grammar anarchy????? GAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  7. The ones that always confuse me are where the noun includes multiple people like 'band' or 'crowd'. Since there is only one crowd, or one band, but both of them involve more than one person, is the pronoun singular or plural?

    1. Another reader asked this question so, 'cause I'm lazy, I'll just copy/paste my answer, below. :-)

      My gut reaction was that a family is a singular unit. But then I did a bit of research and came to realize that it can be plural, *depending*. If the family is acting as a unit (the folks in it are doing the same thing), it's singular. If each family member's doing something different, then it's plural. Crazy, huh? Though I kinda get it...

      The source of this info.

  8. Hello MIna, I picked you up at Trish's blog (love the phrase). Love the grammar lesson too. Nobody really makes these mistakes, does he? (((ducks head and rushes for the door)))


    1. Hey, this pick up's the most action I've seen in *years*! ;-) Thanks so much for stopping by, and LOL! :-)

  9. Remind me not to fly with you -- I go the biggest case of air sickness ever!

    :) my Achilles heel is grammar and now I know I'll never conquer it!

    Glad your son is home! Hope that means less stress, at least till the next episode!

    1. " least till the next episode..."

      Girl, you are SO RIGHT!!! :-)


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