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Author Topic: Dealing with annoying English grammar errors (10th in a series of 14)  (Read 144 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: December 07, 2017, 08:15:25 PM »

This is the 10th in a series of 14 essays on what I consider as the most annoying English grammar errors. It is running consecutively here in the Forum from November 7, 2017 every Tuesday and Friday until December 22.

6 – The problem with wrong pronoun usage

We now turn our attention to the sixth type of grammar error that I find most annoying: wrong pronoun usage. What gets thrashed in such errors is, of course, the basic grammar rule that a pronoun should agree with its antecedent noun in: (1) gender, whether masculine, feminine, or neuter; (2) number, whether singular or plural; and (3) case, whether objective, nominative, or possessive.


When the gender of an antecedent noun is unmistakable, there’s obviously little danger of its pronoun disagreeing with it: “The wife showed no remorse over her infidelity to her husband.” But for some reason, and in some cases it’s not simply proofreading or typographical error, some writers flub their grammar when the antecedent noun is neither masculine nor feminine.

Consider the following lead sentence of a recent kitchen range ad in a housekeeping magazine (all italicizations mine): “Italian dishes are simple yet it burst with a world of flavors.”  It’s really hard to imagine how and why this peculiar double-barreled grammar error could happen, but there it is: the singular, neuter pronoun “it” standing for the plural, neuter antecedent noun “dishes,” and the singular, neuter pronoun “it” disagreeing with the number of the plural present-tense verb “burst.” Here’s the correct construction: “Italian dishes are simple yet they burst with a world of flavors.” Plural antecedent noun, plural pronoun—it’s really that simple.

But lest we become smug with the thought that we couldn’t possibly be that clueless or careless with our pronoun usage, let’s now take a look at this less glaring but likewise annoying pronoun misuse from a recent newspaper social club advertorial: “I’m sure everyone has their own favorite but as usual your guess is as good as mine.”


As we all know, “everyone” is an indefinite pronoun that may be plural in sense but is always considered grammatically singular. The plural possessive pronoun “their” therefore couldn’t possibly stand for it. But then—and I’m sure most of us have been confronted by this question ourselves—if we can’t use the plural “their,” would it be grammatically correct to use “his,” “her,” or “his or her” instead?

Of course, the masculine possessive pronoun “his” has traditionally been the default usage when “everyone” is the antecedent pronoun, as in “Everyone has his favorite.” Today, however, “his” is now largely seen as gender-biased toward males, so most writers studiously avoid using it in such constructions. They use “his or her” as a politically correct, non-sexist compromise, as in “Everyone has his or her favorite.” Obviously, though, using “his or her” so many times in a row in this manner can get annoyingly tiresome.

This is why astute writers would rather turn to the so-called zero pronoun option. See how well this option works for the original sentence in question: “I’m sure everyone has a favorite but as usual your guess is a good as mine.” Here, the article “a” took the place of the problematic form “their” (and “own” was simply dropped), making the sentence read and sound much better than the original.

The zero pronoun option doesn’t always work, however. Consider this sentence: “A parent who does not raise ____ own child properly is headed for a lifetime of disappointment.” Here, neither the article “a” nor “the” will work, so “his or her” looks like the only remaining semantically correct option: “A parent who does not raise his or her own child properly is headed for a lifetime of disappointment.”

Not so. We can actually avoid the “his or her” form by simply pluralizing the subject of the sentence: “Parents who do not raise their own child properly are headed for a lifetime of disappointment.” I’m sure you’ll agree that this is a much better, more elegant construction.

Next, we’ll take a look at how using pronouns in the wrong case can similarly thrash our grammar.

(Next: Usage of nouns or pronouns in the wrong case)   December 12, 2017

This essay, 10th in a series of 14, first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the September 29, 2007 issue of The Manila Times. It subsequently formed part of the book The 10 Most Annoying English Grammar Errors, ©2008 by the author, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: December 07, 2017, 08:34:30 PM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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