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Category : Mechanics

Don’t Slip up with Possessive Pronouns

Be careful not to use plural verb tenses and plural possessive pronouns with singular nouns. This can be tricky, especially when the nouns in question refer to entities (e.g. companies, governments) that contain a lot of people. You might think that because the people define the entities (there would be no governments or companies without their employees) that the entities should be used with plural verbs and pronouns. But watch out!

  • Right: The government’s attitude toward its people was typically positive.
  • Wrong: The government’s attitude toward their people was typically positive.

“The government” is an entity (a “thing”) that requires singular verb forms and singular possessive pronouns. Why not plural verbs or pronouns? Because a government may have many employees, ministers, etc., but it is seen as containing these people. Such people, in essence, “belong” to their governments, much as athletes “belong” to sports teams. As a group, they are defined by their common membership in a single institution, and this institution’s singular identity takes precedent over the individual identities of its members.

Several other examples:

  • Right: The team loses every home game it plays.
  • Wrong: The team lose every home game they play.
  • Right: If the company goes bankrupt, it will have no option but to vacate the premises and auction off its equipment.
  • Wrong: If the company goes bankrupt, they will have no option but to vacate the premises and auction off their equipment.
  • Right: The hospital staff is composed of a set of physicians and nurses.
  • Wrong: The hospital staff are composed of a set of physicians and nurses.

In the latter example, we’re speaking of “hospital staff” as a single entity – a “body” (or group) of people that includes physicians and nurses. Single entities require verbs in singular tenses. The phrasing “hospital staff are” is incorrect because “are” is the present plural form of the verb “to be”.

BUT

  • Right: Hospital staff are required to wear uniforms at all times.
  • Wrong: Hospital staff is required to wear uniforms at all times.

Here, it wouldn’t make sense to say “hospital staff is required to wear uniforms.” Were we use to this phraseology, we would be suggesting that the group “hospital staff”, as a whole and as an abstract, single entity, is required to wear uniforms. “Hospital staff are required” implies individual hospital staff members. While individual members of a group may wear uniforms, the group itself (which is abstract and unable to put on clothes) cannot.

Another way to think about the difference: The words “the office” or “our office” may refer to a group of employees who share a common workplace and, together, constitute an entity known as “the office”. For instance, “Our office holds an annual holiday party.” Note that “our office” is used with a singular form of the verb “to hold”. (“Holds” is the same form of “to hold” that would be used with the singular pronouns “he”, “she”, or “it”.) Also consider, “Our office goes out to lunch every Tuesday.” It would not be correct to say, “Our office hold an annual party” or “Our office go out to lunch every Tuesday.” Here, “hold” and “go” (plural forms of the verbs “to hold” and “to go”, respectively) do not “match” the singular noun “our office”. The mismatch holds, even though “our office” consists of multiple people.

“Who” versus “Whom”

Another word pair that often creates confusion for writers is “who” and “whom.” To properly learn which one to use, we first must clearly understand the difference between the subject and the object of a sentence. Basically, the subject is the one taking the action, and the object is the one that is the recipient of that action. For example, if Johnny hits Billy, Johnny is doing the hitting and is thus the subject, whereas Billy is being hit and is thus the object.

Now, let’s move on to “who” and “whom.” Both of these words are interrogative pronouns, i.e., pronouns used to ask questions. “Who” is a subjective interrogative pronoun. In other words, “who” is used as the subject of a sentence when asking a question. For example, “Who won the race?” “Whom” is an objective interrogative pronoun. In other words, “whom” is used as the object of a sentence or a preposition when asking a question. For example, “Whom did you beat in your race?” In this instance, you see that we are asking about the object of the sentence, i.e., the person who was beat.

To simplify things a bit, think of our first example. Who hit whom? Johnny hit Billy. Hopefully, you will now be able to confidently use “who” and “whom” in your writing.

Each, Every, Either, Neither

Distributive adjectives are normally used with singular nouns. They include “each”, “every”, “either”, and “neither” and are used to refer to members of a group as individuals.

For example, the sentence, “The group received informational brochures before beginning its tour” does not specify whether all the group’s members received brochures. Rather, this is conveyed by the sentence, “Each member of the group received an informational brochure before the tour began.” (Note that the use of “its” no longer makes sense, as “its” refers to “group” in the first sentence – since the subject of the second sentence is “each member of the group”, a more personal pronoun, such as “her” or “his”, or a construction that uses no pronoun at all, such as “before the tour began”, is correct.)

As the foregoing example illustrates, “each” is used to specify that a condition applies to all of the individual members of a group:

  • Each book in the series had a foreword by a noted scholar.
  • Each participant was asked to complete a survey.
  • Each of the participants received compensation.

Note that when the noun to which “each” refers is plural, the construction “each of the” is used.

In most cases, “every” and “each” are interchangeable, as far as meaning goes, though they require slightly different constructions:

  • Every book in the series had a foreword by a noted scholar.
  • Every participant was asked to complete a survey.

Note that it would never be appropriate to use “every of the” – as in, “every of the participants”, which is wrong. “Every” is only used with singular nouns.

The primary difference between “every” and “each” is the degree to which they emphasize the individual, versus the group. While “every” suggests “all” (think “everyone”), “each” suggests “every one”. The difference is subtle and intuitive.

“Either” implies one or the other of two options, as in:

  • Either of these movies would be interesting to me.
  • Either title is age-appropriate, but I suggest the former.

The options need not necessarily be mutually exclusive, but it is presumed, when “either” is used, that only one option will be selected. However, you might find while in a restaurant, for instance, that you can’t decide what to order because either of two options on a menu look good – and so you order both.

“Neither” implies not one or the other of two options, as in:

  • Neither pen will do, as I need to sign in pencil.
  • Neither person in the relationship seems to understand the dilemma.

Whilst suggesting the separate identities of two things (the pens, the people), “neither” negates the viability of both.