Someone And Their

GRAMMAR ERROR:  This is a recurring experience.  I'm listening to a sales clerk or a TV news anchor, or for that matter the president of the United States, and I hear the following (or something like it):  "We need every ONE of the members of this body to do THEIR best to pass this legislation." 

The problem, of course, is the use of a singular pronoun ("one") with a plural pronoun ("their") later in the statement.  It generally is clearer to maintain singularity, as in the following:  "We need every ONE of the members of this body to do HER best to pass this legislation."  (You could use HIS instead of 'her,' of course, but wouldn't that just sound sexist?  And, of course, isn't that really the source of the problem after all?)

 

MATH ERROR:  And here's another experience that just grates on me because it is so illogical, and yet so common:  We heard many comments about the recent end of the first decade of the 21st century, including several TV specials and newspaper articles touting the "Best Athletes of the first decade of this century."  The problem, of course, is that simple math tells us that we have 10 months remaining in this first decade.  A decade, after all, is a period of 10 years, 1-10, and thus far we have completed only 9 years; we are two months into the tenth year, but we have still 10 months to go.  Several athletes deserving of honors will be left out because the "experts" are already counting this year's athletic feats as belonging to the second decade of this century; actually, for the next 10 months, all of their efforts will be part of the FIRST decade of the century.

Oh well...... 

WhalenEsque WhalenEsque
56-60, M
4 Responses Mar 3, 2010

Thanks for your quick and considerate response.<br />
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You wrote that "'their' flows smoothly especially when the number of people we're speaking of is unimportant." What do you mean? Why is the number "unimportant"? Remember: My point is not one of correctness; I'm simply pointing out the illogical use of a singular pronoun (such as "everybody" or "someone") with a plural antecedent ("they" or "their"). "Their" may be convenient, and heaven knows how thoroughly familiar we all are with it; however, you have to at least recognize that it just isn't logical. <br />
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And sometimes such constructions can be confusing. As in this example: "Both of the students turned in their projects." Now, what does this mean? Do we have two students who have turned in two separate projects, or do we have two students who have worked together on one project and turned it in? Or perhaps they each turned in copies of the same project? It's possible; often teachers ask students working jointly on projects to each turn in their own copies for grading purposes. Perhaps, because you aren't a math person, this seems moot, but there are times when the use of THEIR or THEY as a singular pronoun is confusing. <br />
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And, by the way, why are people so quick to accept THEY as both plural or singular? We already have singular pronouns; why not leave the plural pronouns plural? I know—you'll probably say that "common usage is what determines correctness," and basically i would have to agree with you. But, again, I'm simply pointing out the logical inconsistency in using plural pronouns to refer to singular subjects, especially when it's so easy to re-write our sentences so that they are more clear. For example, instead of saying, "Someone lost their purse in the parking lot," why not simply say, "Someone lost a purse in the parking lot." It's just a brief, and it avoids confusion since it may well be that "their purse" is not "Someone's." There are even more egregious examples of this that I hear frequently on the news, and in public places, but even in this example it really is possible that the someone in question was not the original owner of the purse. You will likely respond by saying that the CONTEXT of the surrounding sentences would make the meaning clear. This may be so, but sometimes the context actually makes things more confusing. Even when context helps, why shouldn't we try to at least be logically consistent and as clear as we can? It's hard enough to speak and write clearly at times; why not be as logical as we can, for clarity sake? <br />
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What about this one? Instead of, "Each student should try their best," write, "Each student should try her best," or better still, "All students should try their best." This is just as brief, but it also is quite clear. I know, however, that we Americans love to focus on the individual, which is probably why we use the same basic syntax for most of our utterances: Singular Subject—Verb—Pronoun, as in, "Every one of the pla<x>yers on the team did their best in Saturday's game!" <br />
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For some reason, we love to make the subject singular, almost always! And now in recent decades we have added to that syntax the concern about offending women; thus we have altered the syntax from to Singular Subject—Verb—Singular Pronoun to, instead, Singular Subject—Verb—PLURAL Pronoun. In this way we have rejected the old rule (one which I never was happy about, by the way) of using the masculine pronoun (he, him, his) when the gender of the subject was in doubt. So, instead of, "Every one of the pla<x>yers on the team did HIS best in Saturday's game!" we now say, "Every one of the pla<x>yers on the team did their best in Saturday's game!" Even when the gender is known we say it this way. Have you noticed? <br />
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For example, "Every one of the Lakers did their best in Saturday's game!" There are no ladies on the Lakers basketball team, and yet still we are loathe to say HIS; instead we plop in the obligatory THEIR (so as not to presume the masculine and thus imply that men are more important than women) when clearly the gender is known; they're all guys! Interesting, isn't it? Again, it doesn't disturb me; I just find it interesting. It's one more fun way of sizing up the culture and coming to a better understanding of it.<br />
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And getting back to my first example, instead of writing, "Both of the students turned in their projects," write, "Both of the students turned in their separate projects," or "Each student turned in a project," or "Each student turned in his project." All are clearer, and each just as simple as the first. <br />
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As for the MATH problem, I'm sorry if I have been unclear. Perhaps you didn't notice all the hype about the "end of the ones" as they called it, meaning the "end of the first decade of the 21st century." There were several TV specials, plus magazine and newspaper articles touting the "Biggest Heroes of the decade," the "Best Athletes of the first decade of this century," etc. However, a decade, after all, is a period of 10 years, 1-10, and thus far we have completed only 9 years; we are two months into the tenth year, but we have still 10 months to go before the decade (10 year period) is complete. <br />
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We celebrate birthdays AFTER completing the year, so when you're 50 you have actually lived a full 50 years. New Years celebrations, however, welcome in the New Year. Thus in 2000 we should have been celebrating the start of the year 2000, which is the last year of the second millennium (not the first year of the third millennium). This past Jan. 1, 2010 marked the START of 2010 (the 10 being the last year of the first decade of this new century—the START of the last year of the century). And as I said earlier, some amazing athletic feats—not to mention heroic Sully-like feats—are yet to be witnessed in this final year of the decade; unfortunately, all of the "experts" are going to label them as acts of the second decade of the century.<br />
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"So what?" you might ask. Is it that big a deal. Well, frankly, in and of itself, NO. And it doesn't keep awake at night. I certainly don't think less of anyone for assuming that 2010 is the start of a new decade rather than the final year of a decade. I didn't think any less of all of those who believed that New Year's Day 2000 marked the beginning of a new century. <br />
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My only point is that we, as a society, seem to have arrived at a point where little things in our speech and even in our math computations suggest we are getting a little sloppy—perhaps a bit feeble-minded. That's all. And certainly, the points I raise illustrate that we Americans today are a little less interested in logic and a great deal more concerned with our selves, and our passions. As a man of the cloth, I would think this might be of some interest to you since our God is not only a being concerned about love but is also an incredible mind. A might say a highly intelligent mind, one capable of ordering the universe in complex and yet very logical ways. <br />
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Yes, Love matters, but so does Logic. To me, anyway.<br />
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Thanks again for your timely and thoughtful response. It's wonderful that you would take the time to reflect on the ideas of others and to share your own thoughts with them.<br />
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Christopher T.

the sheer amount of gender neutral pronouns that have been suggested are phenomenal - speaking of confusing. . . as for changing between he and she in mid sentence, anyone with any consciousness immediately notices the discrepancy - it distracts from the content of the writing as part of one's brain is trying to figure it out.<br />
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'their' flows smoothly especially when the number of people we're speaking of is unimportant, and although I like your suggestion about 'one' and have actually used it - there are times when the sentence simply does not permit - at these times we should do what the culture provides rather than cling to the past.<br />
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as for the second question I'm not sure I fully understand it and thus choose to ignore it - I vaguely wonder if perhaps they're speaking of the fact that we count the year after it has been lived - so I'm actually living my 17th year though I'm really 16 - but I'm not sure on all that - math is not my forte :P

I understand that language evolves, but doesn't it bother you that sometimes the changes have stupid motivations? Because we don't want to appear sexist, we ignore logical uses of pronouns. The fear of offending is based on the assumption that the old way of doing was (as our grammar teachers used to tell us) to "use the masculine pronoun when the gender is unknown." Critical feminists and linguists pushed the notion that that practice was sexist. I understand the concern (though I believe it was mistaken, or at best, moot). Nevertheless, their solution was the wrong one. Rather than ignore the obvious fact that THEIR, THEY, and THEM are all plural pronouns, they should have advocated (actually, some did) that we alternate use of masculine and feminine pronouns. So, sometimes when in doubt use the feminine, and other times use the masculine. That way we're all fair, and we also make grammatical sense. <br />
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Yes, we can just cave in to political correctness, even when it causes grammatical confusion; I would rather maintain grammatical consistency, as much as possible. It doesn't really offend me when people mis-use THEIR and THEY; I just smile and go on. <br />
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I used to give my English students this extra credit assignment: Come up with a new gender-neutral pronoun to replace THEIR. What about that idea? OR, to get back to my example, how about simply saying, "We need every ONE of the members of this body to give 100% to pass this legislation." <br />
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By the way, what about the other problem I posed? You know, the decade thing? It's just another of many examples of our slipping further and further away from logical discourse. Should we just accept 9 years as the new decade, in much the same way that you say we should just accept THEIR as the new gender-neutral pronoun? <br />
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Thanks for responding, and keep thinking.<br />
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Christopher T.

I've been fighting head hand and heart for what you consider a grammar error - the amount of people using their as a gender neutral pronoun is vast, can't we just get with the times and accept it? English is a living language, it morphs as our culture morphs this I think is one of those cases.<br />
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I've started a group on face book called- their will work - it's small at the moment but only because no one knows about it - we're going to get this in a grammar book just you wait!