We’re really fast approaching the end of this blog series on the 20 most common grammar errors plus Anderson’s Five: capitalization, quotation marks, question marks, double negatives, and spelling. Today, we come in at error number sixteen, the pronoun agreement error.
We know from error number 2, the vague pronoun, that a pronoun replaces a noun, and this noun is called the antecedent.
A pronoun agreement error occurs when the pronoun doesn’t match the antecedent. This error happens a lot with indefinite pronouns, but we’ll get into that in a minute because there is an important debate I want to get into…
So let’s look at the second most common pronoun agreement error: plurality versus singularity.
The cats ate through its pet-carrier.
Cats is plural. Its is singular. See the problem? The sentence should read:
The cats ate through their pet-carrier.
Now, take a look at this sentence:
Somebody has left their milk on the counter.
Looks right, doesn’t it? But, somebody is an indefinite pronoun and is singular. Their is plural. What should you do instead?
Somebody has left her milk on the counter.
Somebody has left his milk on the counter.
Somebody has left one’s milk on the counter.
Somebody left milk on the counter.
All of the above are viable options.
But then, you know, it really depends upon your agenda as a writer.
My first year in college (and that is farther back than I want to remember) I flunked out of my composition class. Believe that or not, will you?
I had a very strongly opinionated feminist as an instructor. Plus, she was only a graduate student, and what the heck do graduate students know, right? Well, graduate students know nothing, except probably they know way more than a wet-behind the ear eighteen year old kid. And, at the time, being that wet-behind-the-ear kid, I thought I knew way more than my instructor. And, my instructor wanted me to use the s/he construct for gender-neutral pronouns instead of the accepted he.
Well, writing s/he every single time is just stupid. That draws attention to the writing itself, and as a writer, you really want to be as invisible as possible. You want the reader to submerse themselves in the topic or story you are writing about—not pay attention to the grammar (which is why grammar is important). Which notice what I just did there:
You want the reader to submerse themselves in the topic or story you are writing about.
I mixed the pronouns. They are not in agreement: reader is singular, themselves is plural. I just said that’s wrong, but there is a movement to utilize the they pronoun construction as a gender-neutral pronoun. I wish I had known about this pronoun construction when I was eighteen. Or better yet, I wish my feminist graduate student instructor knew about this particular construction. I might have passed the class instead of being argumentative. Well, maybe not—she also wanted us to spell woman womyn. And I have a whole rant on that, but it’s not today’s topic.
The they gender-neutral pronoun construct actually has a history backing up its use since 1300! I’m just hearing about this rather recently though. You can check the history out here, as well as check out some really famous examples from Jane Austin, Lewis Carroll, the King James Bible, Shakespeare and others.
If you have the time, also you should check out the gender-neutral pronoun FAQ—updated last in 2004.
So what’s my agenda as a writer?
Depends on what I’m writing. Or who my audience is. Writing this blog, I attempt to use the gender-neutral they because I believe it makes sense and removes some of the sexism inherent within the English language. Writing an academic paper for one of my instructors, the gender-neutral construct is out. Unless, you know, I have another strongly opinionated feminist as an instructor. But for my fiction? Depends upon the story. Readers have preconceived ideas of what grammar is supposed to look like. Understanding the rules and anomalies allows you to play with those preconceived ideas and create effects you otherwise couldn’t.Steve Bargdill writes “literary stuff” with the occasional foray into speculative fiction. Originally from Ohio, he has lived in Dayton, Columbus, Troy, St. Marys, and New Knoxville as well as West Branch, Iowa; Lincoln, Nebraska; Munice, Indiana; and currently lives in Laramie, Wyoming. Bargdill is the author of The Wasteland Series available on Amazon. He’s written for several newspapers and is currently a first year English graduate student at the University of Wyoming. You can read his short stories for free on Wattpad.