Tag Archives: confusing pronouns

Why I Use the Singular “They”

Would you say that the sentence below is right – or wrong?

If anyone forgot their ticket, see me in the Events Office on the second floor.

Many people (I used to be one of them) would say that their is wrong. Anyone is singular, so it should be followed with another singular pronoun: his or her. Many people feel that using their instead of his or her is one more sign that our language is deteriorating. Are they right?

The surprising truth is that using “their” as a singular pronoun dates back to the 14th century, when English lost its gender-neutral singular pronoun. It was standard English and used by many serious writers, including Caxton, Shakespeare, Austen, Thackeray, Shaw, and many others.

But in the late 18th century, an American attorney named Lindley Murray decided that English should be more mathematical.

He wrote a book complaining about that usage, and – unfortunately – it became an international bestseller. Schools began teaching students to say “he” instead of “they.” When feminism came along in the mid 20-century, it got worse: now we had to use the clumsy he or she phrase.

Anyone bothered by the math should think about this: Are is another plural word that we use for one person when we say “you are.” You never say “You is,” do you? “You are my favorite aunt” is perfectly grammatical English, even though you’re talking to just one person.

Back in the time of Shakespeare, you were supposed to say “thou art” when you spoke to a single person. Nevertheless, soon almost everyone switched to the plural “you are.” Today nobody bats an eye about it.

If we can use “you are” for one person, we can use “they” for one person too.

It’s likely that even the “his or her” sticklers use the “singular they” more often than they realize.

Mary Norris (a wonderful writer and an authority on English usage) came out against the “singular they” in her book Between You and Me. (Apparently nobody told her about Lindley Murray!) But she uses a “singular they” herself in the book: “Nobody wanted to think they were not essential.”

Common sense is beginning to prevail, and many people (I’m one of them) have happily gone back to the original practice of using “they.” I have made a vow that I am never going to use “his or her” again. If anyone is upset about it, that’s their problem, not mine.

rule against using the singular they


For I and My Gal: Avoiding Pronoun Errors

Yes, I’m exaggerating. But the pronoun errors I keep running into are almost as ridiculous as singing “For I and my gal” instead of “For me and my gal” in the famous song.

I just edited an article that referred to “dragging the chairs outside for he and Larry.” For he?

But I hear similar errors all the time, often from people with graduate degrees: “for she,” “to he,” “with she and he.”

Folks, it’s “for her,” “to him,” “with him and her.” Please.

And when the weather gets better, we’ll be “dragging the chairs outside for him and Larry.”

(For a review of pronoun rules, click here.)


Pronoun Case, Anyone?

Discouraging – that’s what it is. AOL (which certainly has enough extra money lying around to hire an editor) allowed this ad to go up on its website with a pronoun error.

Let’s find out what’s wrong, using the “Thumb Rule” (Rule 3 on Pronouns Made Simple).

The question is whether it’s “Champ and I” or “Champ and me.” These I/me questions crop up all the time. (Similar questions arise with he/him, she/her, we/us, and they/them.)

Here’s how you do it: Make the sentence shorter so that you can hear which word is correct: I or me.

Here is a new photo of I.

Here is a new photo of me.

Which is right?

Here is a new photo of me.  CORRECT

So…use “me” when you make the sentence longer:

Here is a new photo of Champ and me. CORRECT



Confusing Pronouns

I’ve often said that the words most likely to get a writer in trouble are the simplest ones: it’s/its, their/there/they’re…you get the idea.

High on that list would be these four words: he, him, she, her.

Perhaps you’re surprised. Those are simple words that everyone uses all the time. What’s the problem?

Actually there are two problems. First, people tend to mix them up, using “him” when they should say “he” and vice versa. My students (sigh!) are fond of saying “John and her went to the library.” Teachers patiently explain that “she” is correct, which leads to more confusion when students start using “she” all the time: “The librarian helped John and she find some useful information.”

Here’s how to do those sentences:

She went to the library.

John and she went to the library.

The librarian helped her find some useful information.

The librarian helped John and her find some useful information.

(Click on the Pronouns Made Simple link on this website and scroll down to read about “The Thumb Rule” if you want more help with these pronouns.)

But there’s another problem, almost as common, with words like he, him, she, her: Confusion when there are two males or two females in a sentence.

Here’s an example from the New York Times Magazine, usually a paragon of good writing:

(Background: Children were reared in an absolutely-no-junk-food home. Daughter Jess used a trip to an emergency room to bargain for a forbidden meal.)

At the hospital, the deal was struck. Jess wouldn’t freak out as the doctor threaded the dozen stitches, and in return, my mother would grant one fast-food burger of her choosing.

Who did the choosing, Mom or Jess? That “her” could refer to either.

Three pieces of advice:

1.  Be careful with words like hehimsheher.

2.  Learn the Thumb Rule. (It’s easy!)

3.  Always, always ask a friend or family member to read over what you’ve written. If you were writing that story about Jess and her Whopper, of course you’d know that it was your sister who made the choice. She’s your sister, and you know the story well! Your eyes pass over that “her” so quickly that you might not realize it will confuse a reader who doesn’t know you and your family.