When critiquing the work of other writers, one of the most common mistakes I find is the use of a plural pronoun to refer to a singular antecedent. I’m indebted to one of my high school English teachers (thank-you, Mrs. K.) for taking the time to teach how to use pronouns. Here is one of the rules that Mrs. K. taught:
A singular pronoun must refer to a singular antecedent; a plural pronoun must refer to a plural antecedent.
Mr. Brown (antecedent) reported that his (pronoun) chicken was stolen.
Mr. and Mrs. Brown (antecedents) reported that their (pronoun) chicken was stolen.
Can you spot the error in the sentence below?
If the chicken thief is caught,
theywill go to jail.
In the sentence above, chicken thief is a singular antecedent. The pronoun they is plural. So many writers use they to refer to a singular antecedent. The rule states that a plural pronoun must refer to a plural antecedent.
Here is one way to correct the sentence:
If the chicken thief is caught, he will go to jail.
The singular pronoun he refers to the singular antecedent chicken thief. The rule states that a singular pronoun must refer to a singular antecedent. Since chicken thief and he are singular, the corrected sentence follows the rule.
Suppose there were two (or more) chicken thieves. Then the following sentence would be correct:
If the chicken thieves are caught, they will go to jail.
The plural pronoun they refers the to the plural antecedent chicken thieves. The rule states that a plural pronoun must refer to a plural antecedent. Since chicken thieves and they are plural, the sentence in question follows the rule.
Some readers may recall that the American Dialect Society named the singular pronoun “they” to be the 2015 Word of the Year. Others may agree with the article by Jen Dole that declares that the singular “they” must be stopped. For the record, I’m siding with Jen, who states:
I’m not ranting against use of they as a preferred gender pronoun, but instead, in (the more frequent) cases in which it’s simply the easy way out, and, I think, indicative of sloppy writing.
Of course, fans of Jane Austen may call attention to her frequent use of the singular “they”/”their”/”them”/”themselves” construction. For readers looking for authoritative guidance, Nicholae Cline, a librarian at Indiana University, wrote an article that outlines the positions of various academic style guides.
Until next time,
Write something you love! — Joanne