Each Writer Should Correct Their Own Grammar

Dreading to deal with the ubiquitous “their,” let’s just get it over with. It’s become so common for us to say things like “Do you know someone who lives alone and worries for their life?” or “Everyone in the audience blew their nose.” How about “No one knew what their assignment was.” And so on.

We have gotten into the habit of using “their” as a catch-all word in sentences that really call for a singular pronoun. And often, the best way around these glaring pitfalls is to rewrite.

It is clunky to always say “his” or “her”: “Each person in the room scratched his or her head.” But although it’s easier to defer to “Each person scratched their head,” why not rewrite into a stronger sentence? Or if it the information is not necessary, just take it out. Do you really need to tell the reader that everyone scratched their head? Just what are you trying to say?

If you are referring to a group of people or objects or animals, using “their” will depend on the emphasis you are aiming for. If you say “The audience is listening” (heard that slogan before?), the “audience” is being treated as a singular noun or entity. If you say “The couple are having marital problems,” you are implying both in the relationship as individuals are having difficulty with their marriage. You can also say “The couple is having trouble” if you want to make them a singular entity, but the emphasis is slightly different.

Just know that some pronouns are only singular: each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, neither, nobody, nothing, somebody, someone, something. So that when you construct a sentence with these, the verb needs to be singular: “Each is responsible for his own book.” Sorry, no “their” allowed. And so as not to confuse you further, I won’t tell you about the pronouns that can be either singular or plural. I’ll plague you with that next week.

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  1. Oh, my. You have struck close to my heart. Correct pronoun usage is becoming a lost art, I’m afraid. Incorrect usage is rampant in the media among folks you’d think would know better. Thank you for this post! (In case you haven’t guessed, I’m a former high school teacher/grammar Nazi turned writer!)

    1. You are free to disagree. I am just sharing what is currently acceptable and preferred in the editing and publishing world. It’s usually a clunky or inaccurate way of saying what you mean. I had a great English teacher in high school whose favorite line has stuck with me all these decades: “Say what you mean. Don’t say what you don’t mean.” Often using “their” in a sentence like those I cover is not really “saying what you mean.”

  2. Being a former English teacher, I agree with you. Clarity in each individual sentence is every writer’s goal. However, it will be fascinating to see how the language evolves.

  3. HI Susanne, Thanks again for the grammar pointers you post regularly on your blog. It’s a great reminder for those long-ago HS English lessons that tend to fall by the wayside. I wanted you to know that I’ve been incorporating many of your recommendations such as Shoot your Novel into the book I’m writing. I read your blog…oh great idea!…and put the concept to work in my book. Your posts have been inspiring me as I write just as if you were standing over my shoulder and guiding me along. I’ll be attending James Scott Bell’s writing seminar at the end of June in the Bay Area and hope to meet you there. Keep up the good work, oh great teacher with locks of brown, as I am learning my lessons as your ‘Grasshopper’ apprentice!

    1. Thanks, Debbie. I look forward to meeting you at the workshop. Spread the news to your friends. There are still lots of spaces available!

  4. Point taken. One more item added to my list of dangerous words and their usage. I am learning to write better by paying attention to your blog topics. Thank you for slapping me on the head just when I thought the editing process was almost complete. There is ALWAYS room for improvement.

  5. Thanks for the great grammmer lesson, Susanne. It has been a long time since that High School English class.

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