Grammar Time: antecedent agreement

Once upon a time there existed the grammatical convention of using the pronoun “he” as a common reference.

Therefore, sentences such as Each student knows he is responsible for filing his assignment as soon as it is written were based on this standardized rule. Noun-pronoun agreement was simple. One student equated to the singular “he” pronoun.

Anyone violating noun-pronoun agreement in writing something such as Each student knows they are responsible for filing their assignment as soon as it is written created a glaring grammatical error.

Correcting such an error was also simple:

Acceptable option 1:  Each student knows he is responsible for filing his assignment ….

Acceptable option 2:  Students know they are responsible for filing their assignments ….

Twentieth-century feminist activists campaigned for equal rights and pay for women and argued against using “he” as the default pronoun.

Writers wishing to be sensitive and PC incorporated the awkward construction of “he or she.”

As we all know, that approach grows cumbersome quickly in formal writing. For example, When a student is left to make his or her choice between salad and chocolate cake, he or she will probably select a sweet.

However clumsy it seems, such a sentence construction is grammatically correct. Yet it has created two less-than-fortunate results.

The first is that the concept of “he or she” has generated a mental image of multiple people. The phrase is singular, referring to either a man or a woman (or a girl or a boy), but to the most casual American imagination it conveys plurality. Why should that matter? Because “he or she” incorrectly becomes an antecedent to “they.”

Incorrect example:  When he or she understand they are responsible for filing their assignments on time, they will be more efficient.

Correct example:  When he or she understands he or she is responsible for filing his or her assignments on time, he or she will be more efficient.

Ghastly, isn’t it? Correct or incorrect, this is not good writing.

The other unfortunate result I want to address is that the concept of plurality has spread, like mustard-algae taking over an improperly maintained swimming pool, to other types of noun-pronoun agreement. In other words, agreement itself is in danger of becoming extinct.

Incorrect example:  When the reader sees viewpoint handled well, they enjoy a story more.

In this horrid sentence, the antecedent “the reader” is singular. Yet because PC training has hammered the concept of “he or she” into people’s heads, the plural misconstruction comes into play and as a result the pronoun used in the second part of the sentence is plural. That violates the grammatical rule of noun-pronoun agreement. If a noun is singular, the pronoun must be singular.

We have two correct ways of dealing with this error.

Correct example 1:  When readers see viewpoint handled well, they enjoy a story more.

In this solution, if you’re thinking plural then go all the way.

Correct example 2a:  When the reader sees viewpoint handled well, he enjoys a story more.

Correct example 2b:  When the reader sees viewpoint handled well, she enjoys a story more.

My preference in writing is to alternate between “he” in making some of my points and “she” for others. That way, the grammatical standard hasn’t been butchered, both genders have been given equal attention, and the sentences remain clear and easy to follow.

However, there has arisen another issue among certain individuals who wish to avoid any gender label whatsoever. Their activists dislike being referred to as either “he” or “she.” They advocate that a person be referred to in the plural, which is grammatically incorrect and inaccurate. By conveying erroneous information, it generates confusion.

A single person standing on a street corner cannot be referred to as “they” because a lone individual is not more than one person. If a police officer needs to issue a report, that officer cannot say, The perpetrator picked up their stolen clothes off the floor and fled the store with three coats and a pair of shoes.

Such a report would confuse other officers trying to make an arrest because would they be searching for one thief or several?

Some might argue that language needs to change with the times and that adhering to old grammatical rules is ridiculous. However, I believe that the adaptability of language comes not through abandoning standards, rules, accuracy, and coherence but in creating new terms that accurately and precisely convey meanings for new concepts. (Of course, English has a pronoun already in place that will stand for anyone entirely gender-neutral, but most people reject being referred to as “it.”)

The English language is complicated, quirky, challenging, and wonderful. Work with it, and it will support you through any ideas you wish to write about. Work against it, and it quickly transforms into a stilted, awkward beast that refuses to cooperate.

The rules serve us well, if we let them.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Grammar Time: antecedent agreement

  1. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about Harvard’s recent adoption and promotion of new gender-free pronouns such as “ze,” and “hir,” Is this going to make things better or worse?

  2. I can’t see how those pronouns will improve the situation. Also, does Harvard expect the rest of the nation to adopt these words? It’s difficult to achieve standardization, especially when activists don’t always adhere to standardization in the first place. Frankly, I think these pronouns have about as much chance of changing the English language as ebonics, but we’ll have to wait and see.
    As someone who is proud of my gender and glad that men and women are different from each other, I personally will be sticking with he and she.

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