Grammar Accord: Be Sure Your Nouns and Pronouns Agree
by Kathleen Watson
If you remember early grammar lessons, you’ll recall 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.
Although we all recognize that grammar is interpreted more casually than ever before, careful writers still pay attention to long-accepted conventions. 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 breaks the rules is going to find they will be penalized.
problem: Whoever is singular and they is plural
better: Whoever breaks the rules will find out there are penalties.
mismatch: A patient (singular) should feel comfortable with their (plural) physician.
problem: patient is singular and their is plural
better: Patients should feel comfortable with their physicians.
mismatch: Most experts say that as a baby (singular) grows and matures, they (plural) start sleeping longer at night.
problem: a baby is singular and they is plural
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 may use their computers during class.
problem: Everyone means every single person and their means multiple persons
better: All students may use their computers during class.
mismatch: Anyone who rides a bicycle should wear their helmet.
problem: Anyone means any one person and their means multiple persons
better: Anyone who rides a bicycle should wear a helmet.
mismatch: If you see someone using the back door, please direct them to the front.
problem: someone means one person and them means multiple persons
better: If you see people using the back door, please direct them to the front.
And remember that everybody, anybody, anyone, each, neither, nobody and someone are considered singular and should be paired with singular pronouns. Some writers believe they/them is becoming an acceptable pairing. I’m not yet among them. How about you?
Kathleen Watson has nearly three decades of experience as an independent business writer, serving clients in both corporate and academic settings. Her weekly blog, Killer Tips from The Ruthless Editor, offers practical word and punctuation tips, as does her recently published book Grammar For People Who Hate Rules: Killer Tips From The Ruthless Editor. Contact her at: Kathy@RuthlessEditor.com.