Careful writers and speakers make sure their nouns and pronouns agree. This chapter from my book, Grammar for People Who Hate Rules: Killer Tips From The Ruthless Editor, explains how to avoid an all-too-common error.
If you remember early grammar lessons, you might recall learning that a noun is a person, place or thing:
man | village | car
The man drove to a nearby village to test-drive the car.
A proper noun takes the place of a noun; it is a specific person, place or thing:
John | Mayville | Chevrolet
John drove to Mayville to test-drive the Chevrolet.
A pronoun takes the place of or refers to a noun; it generally is less specific than a noun or proper noun: he, you, they, it, ours, who, which, anyone, that, this, those.
He drove there to test-drive it.
Pronouns can get us into grammatical trouble when they don’t “agree” with the noun they represent.
Here are samples of mismatched nouns and pronouns, along with potential rewrites:
mismatch: Whoever (singular) breaks the rules is going to find they (plural) will be penalized.
better: Whoever breaks the rules will find out there are penalties.
mismatch: A patient (singular) should feel comfortable with their (plural) physician.
better: Patients should feel comfortable with their physician.
mismatch: Most experts say that as a baby (singular) grows and matures, they (plural) start sleeping longer at night.
better: Most experts say that as babies grow and mature, they start sleeping longer at night.
These “one” pronouns often create problems with subject/verb agreement:
everyone | anyone | someone
mismatch: Everyone (every single person) may use their (multiple persons) computers during class.
better: All students may use computers during class.
mismatch: Anyone (any one person) who rides a bicycle should wear their (multiple persons) helmet.
better: Anyone who rides a bicycle should wear a helmet.
mismatch: If you see someone (one person) using the back door, please direct them (multiple persons) to the front.
better: If you see people using the back door, please direct them to the front.
Killer Tip: The words everybody, anybody, anyone, each, neither, nobody and someone are considered singular and should be paired with singular pronouns. Some believe they is becoming an acceptable pairing. I’m not yet among them.
Have a question about word or punctuation use? Send it my way. I’ll either respond in person or consider it for a future blog topic.
And check out my book. It’s perfect for anyone who uses Standard English at work, at school or in everyday conversations, but who either has forgotten or never fully understood those pesky grammar rules. And it’s packed with examples to help those of you who grew up speaking English as well as those of you new to the English language.
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