We may not have it all together, but together we have it all.
One of the things my grammar teachers always drummed into our heads back in school was that pronouns have to agree with their antecedents both in number and in gender. Remember that?
Say what? What’s an antecedent, David? I thought that meant someone who had already died.
Well, an antecedent can actually be a preceding event or condition. Something that took place or was in effect before something else. But we’re not talking about the general meaning of the term here.
In grammar, according to Wikipedia, an antecedent is a noun, noun phrase, or clause to which an anaphor refers in a coreference. Huh? Now we’re really getting confused. Webster simplifies it as “a substantive word, phrase or clause referred to by a pronoun.”
Really? This is supposed to be simple and understandable. What does all this mean in plain English? Give me an example.
Okay: “John took his place in line.” Simple enough sentence?
“John” is a noun and is the subject of the sentence. “Took” is the verb of the sentence. “Place” is another noun and is the direct object in this sentence. It tells us what John took. “In line” is a prepositional phrase describing what place John took. “His” is a possessive pronoun telling whose place we’re talking about.
To what does “his” refer? To John. Therefore, “John” is the antecedent of the pronoun “his.” You wouldn’t say John took her place in line, because “her” doesn’t agree with “John” in gender. You wouldn’t say John took their place in line, because “their” doesn’t agree with “John” in number. You say “his” because it agrees with “John”—its antecedent—both in number and gender.
Thus, if we’d been talking about John and Mary, we would have said “their” place, and if we’d been talking about Mary alone, we’d have said “her” place. These are pretty simple examples. No one would have screwed this up.
But what if I wanted to tell you everybody got in line. Most writers would likely say “Everybody took their place in line.” And that’s just wrong.
Yes, I realize “everybody” encompasses more than one person—maybe even a whole horde of them. But “everybody” is singular. Would you say “Everybody say so?” No, of course not. You’d say “Everybody says so.” Why? Because “everybody” is singular, and “says” is the third person singular form of “say.” Probably no one would make this error. It’s too obvious.
So why say “Everybody took their place?” Everybody is STILL singular. And the pronoun referring to it must also be singular. “Everybody took HIS place in line” is the correct statement.
This particular grammatical error is primarily caused—or at least exacerbated—by “political correctness.” We don’t want to slight females, and we’ve all forgotten that “he” and “him” and “his” can be used generically. Kind of like “mankind.” When we use that term, we’re not excluding all women. We’re just using the term generically to cover all of humanity.
Advertising has also dumbed down our language in the area of pronoun agreement. We see or hear, “Walmart is having their Fourth of July sale.” Come again?
We didn’t say “Walmart are,” so why did we say “their?” Walmart has thousands of stores and probably over a million employees, but it’s still one company. Singular.
Let’s all try to pay more attention to making our pronouns agree with the nouns they’re connected to. And, yes, I know I just ended a sentence with a preposition. To quote Sir Winston Churchill, “There are some rules of grammar up with which I shall not put.” You’d have thought I was being stuffy if I’d said the nouns to which they are connected.
Please comment on whether or not I’ve made my point here. Do we need to talk about this subject more in another post? I love hearing from you.
David N. Walker is a Christian father and grandfather, a grounded pilot and a near-scratch golfer who had to give up the game because of shoulder problems. A graduate of Duke University, he spent 42 years as a health insurance agent. Most of that career was spent in Texas, but for a few years he traveled many other states. He started writing about 20 years ago, and has six unpublished novels to use as primers on how NOT to write fiction. He has just e-pubbed his devotional, Heaven Sent: 67 Stories of Godly Thoughts and Inspiration (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008CRL82M). His new fiction work—a series of novellas set during the period from 1860 to 1880 is underway. The first one is in the editing process, and he’s currently writing the second one.
Contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet him at @davidnwalkertx