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Archive for the ‘pronouns’ Category

What’s wrong with this message, one that goes out to WordPress bloggers thousands of times a day?

No, the answer is not “Jay P. Johnson has poor taste in blogs.” The problem involves agreement. Jay is one person, or singular in grammar lingo. Their is plural. The two words don’t agree.

Reaching agreement is hard in business and in life, and sometimes it’s even harder for writers to get nouns and pronouns to agree. Fortunately, many people miss agreement errors anyway, so no one may notice that you slipped up and wrote they instead of it. But grammar-savvy people all agree: Right is better.

The main problem with pronoun reference comes from a longstanding rule. For centuries, grammar books insisted that the gender of any indefinite subject was male. However, most modern employees would not want to risk the wrath of their female counterparts by writing this:

A good business executive should hone his computer skills.

Obviously, business executives can be male or female, but technically, the pesky rule said to refer to them all as men. So people started indiscriminately using their to solve the problem. However, in many situations the word is incorrect.

Current grammar books suggest working around the rule to avoid sexism. Here are a few techniques:

1. Use plurals because plural references have no gender.

Good business executives should hone their computer skills.

2. Use both a masculine and feminine pronoun.

A good business executive should hone his or her computer skills.

3. Use a slash.

A good business executive should hone his/her computer skills.

This technique gets awkward, so use it sparingly. Another hybrid that’s popping up is s/he, which goes beyond awkward. Please avoid it so it doesn’t catch on and become acceptable!

4. Mix and match throughout the document.

A good business executive should hone his computer skills.

A company president should remember her responsibilities to her employees.

The mix-and-match method is tricky. Some nonfiction books will use female references in one chapter and male references in the next in an attempt to be fair and consistent at the same time, but in the end this method will feel inconsistent at some level.

5. Rewrite the sentence.

Computer skills are vital for today’s business executive.

One singular sensation

Probably the most common violation of proper pronoun agreement is using the word they, a plural pronoun, to refer back to collective nouns. Collective nouns name a group acting as a single unit and are supposed to take singular pronouns:

The committee presented its findings.

The jury announced its verdict.

Because groups and corporations are run by many people, writers tend to think of those entities in terms of people, a plural concept, instead of the proper singular perspective:

WRONG: Wal-Mart has been in the news because of their business practices.

RIGHT: Wal-Mart has been in the news because of its business practices.

WRONG: Dunkin’ Donuts released their financial report.

RIGHT: Dunkin’ Donuts released its financial report.

Next time: How the Miami Heat upset the grammar world

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