Pronoun Agreement, Anyone?

No, I’m not going to teach you how to do pronoun agreement today. Instead I want to talk about a problem caused by one of those #${%&! people who want to fix our language.

(If you want a refresher about the rule I’m going to talk about, click here to read a short explanation of Pronoun Rule 1.)

I used to have a blog where I reflected on all kinds of things. In one entry I focused on Jungian author and analyst Marion Woodman. Here’s what I wrote:

Marion Woodman tells the story of a “shadow party” she held as part of a women’s retreat. Everyone at the retreat was invited to dress up as someone she secretly longed to be – in Jungian terms, a “shadow” figure.

Do you see the problem with the second sentence? It’s grammatically correct (“everyone” is singular, so I continued the sentence with “someone she secretly longed to be”).

But someone reading quickly (OK, I’ll confess – I’m a longtime member of that group) might think I meant that the partygoers dressed up as someone Marion Woodman wanted to be. After all, I wrote she rather than they.

So here are my choices: Be ungrammatical (“someone they secretly longed to be”) OR confusing (“someone she secretly longed to be”). I chose Door #2 grammatical but confusing. Readers will figure out what I meant – no big deal.

But I’m annoyed about being forced to make that choice. Why can’t English be readable and grammatical at the same time? The answer is that various people have messed with our language over the centuries, and sometimes they create problems instead of solving them.

The ridiculous pronoun agreement rule (“everyone” = he or she) was invented by Lindley Murray, a self-proclaimed grammar expert back in the 18th century who took it upon himself to make English more logical. And so we are stuck with a clumsy “he or she” structure instead of using “they,” which was considered perfectly correct until Murray came along.

Time to calm down. I’m going to go back to the blog and revise the sentence to eliminate the problem. Here’s how:

Marion Woodman tells the story of a “shadow party” she held as part of a women’s retreat. Participants were invited to dress up as someone they secretly longed to be – in Jungian terms, a “shadow” figure.

Did you notice that a new problem has emerged? Participants is plural, but someone and a “shadow” figure are singular. Strangely, there’s no rule in the English language for this kind of thing. You just close your eyes and jump in, hoping it will be OK.

I wonder how much time I’ve wasted over the years trying to fix problems like these that shouldn’t have been problems in the first place. Anyone out there want to be a professional writer?


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