Tag Archives: pronoun agreement

A New Word

It’s time to replace my Scrabble Players Official Dictionary: The 4th edition has just been published (The third edition was released in 1995.)

This new edition is raising eyebrows because it includes some slang, including a word that’s new to me: innit.

In case you’re wondering (I was!), innit can roughly be translated as “isn’t it?” It’s classified as an “invariant tag” – an unchanging phrase that can be added to the end of a sentence. Popular invariant tags in English include “you know?” and “okay?” They’re generally considered nonstandard, meaning they shouldn’t be used in formal writing.

Here’s an example of how you might use innit: We should make reservations soon, innit?

Iit’s not an expression I plan to start using.

But the BBC, no less, is warning sticklers like me not to be so hoity-toity. Here’s what one of their language experts said about innit:

Although its use varies between different groups of speakers, each individual will have their own grammatical rules on when ‘innit’ can and can’t be used.

Several things caught my eye when I read their statement. “Different groups of speakers” is, to my mind, a copout. If you’re the kind of person who visits the BBC website, you want to fit in with educated people who speak a certain kind of English with prescribed rules and practices. Innit is not going to show up in your conversation unless you’re joking around.

Another point the BBC made later on was, however, useful: “Invariant tags are common in other languages: Spanish has ¿verdad? and ¿no?, German has nicht war? and the non-standard oder? and French has n’est-ce pas?”

It’s a good reminder for people who insist, against all evidence, that language is supposed to be logical. Name a grammatical rule, and you’ll probably find that at least one language routinely breaks it, even in formal writing. (The double negative is a good example: It’s perfectly acceptable in educated Spanish.)

One more detail in the BBC statement caught my eye: The pronoun agreement error: “each individual…their”. (It’s supposed to be “each individual…his or her.”)

Frankly, I’m relieved. I hate “his or her,” and I often curse Lindley Murray, the man who saddled us with this rule, or at least got the ball rolling. Feminists made a bad situation worse by adding “or her” to that irritating “each individual…his.”

An annoying situation, innit?


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?