This Week’s Grammar Mailbox question is:
What is wrong with this sentence?
“Everyone came to our Christmas party and brought their favourite cake.”
The problem is related to singular indefinite pronouns
The sentence incorrectly uses a plural personal pronoun (namely, “they” and “their”) to refer to a singular antecedent.
The antecedent (“everyone”) is an indefinite pronoun, so called because it does not refer to a specific person, place, or thing. This indefinite pronoun is singular. Not only must we use a singular verb with it, but we must also refer to it with a singular personal pronoun. Thus, one way to correct the sentence above is to replace the plural personal pronoun with the singular counterpart:
“EVERYONE came to our Christmas party and brought HIS OR HER favourite cake.”
Here are several more examples followed by corrected versions of the sentence:
Each worker has to sign their annual review and return it by September 15.
EACH worker has to sign HIS OR HER annual review and return it by September 15.
Someone forgot to close the back door last night when they left the house.
SOMEONE forgot to close the back door last night when HE OR SHE left the house.
Anyone who has worked in the business for at least three years is eligible for disability benefits, but they have to complete the appropriate forms.
ANYONE who has worked in the business for at least three years is eligible for disability benefits, but HE OR SHE HAS to complete the appropriate forms.
But since the frequent use of the nonsexist phrase “he or she” is awkward and wordy, we can write a better sentence by avoiding the singular antecedent if possible or by avoiding the use of a pronoun later in the sentence. Here are some examples:
— Everyone came to our Christmas party and brought a favourite cake.
— Someone forgot to close the back door last night when leaving the house.
— Anyone who has worked in the business for at least three years is eligible for disability benefits but must first complete the appropriate forms.
Notice that sentence 2 must stick with the “his or her” construction in order to be completely clear. It would not make sense, for example, to say, “EACH worker has to sign AN annual review and return it by September 15” because we then suggest that the employees do not have to sign their own review.
One option is to change the singular pronoun “each” to the plural “all”:
ALL workers have to sign THEIR annual reviews and return them by September 15.
Here is a list of third-person, singular indefinite pronouns:
- no one
How might each of these incorrect sentences be corrected to avoid a pronoun error?
1. Everybody is leaving work early to be home with their families for a long weekend.
2. Neither of the books has writing in their margins.
3. Each of the players on the softball team has to wash their uniform between games.
Write your answers in the comments sections. We will reveal the correct answers in our next post!
Answers to last week’s challenge:
1. Wars affect everybody, and their destructive effects last for generations.
2. Television has a strong effect on public opinion.
3. My mood can affect my thinking, too.
4. I see that you’re trying to affect apathy, but I know that you really do care.
5. Falling on my head had a bad effect on my memory.
6. His years of smoking have negatively affected his health.
7. This plan will surely effect significant improvements in our productivity.
8. The patient shows normal affect and appears to be psychologically stable.
9. The principal’s new rules affected the school.
10. Supply and demand have a direct effect on the prices of commodities.