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Category : Common Mistakes

Pronoun Problems: Confusing Singular with Plural

Pronouns seem painless enough at first: you simply replace a noun with a corresponding pronoun, like a shortcut or abbreviation. Easy stuff, right? In a way, yes, but in another way, not at all. While the basic mechanics of pronouns are indeed straightforward, using them properly in writing is made difficult by – as counterintuitive as it may sound – English speakers themselves. There are many instances where conversational English rebels against the norms of standard academic English. The use of singular and plural pronouns is one of those cases.

In conversation, it would not be strange to hear any of the following sentences:

Each student knew where they should sit.

A leader is someone who knows when they need to take action.

Anyone who says they never lie is not telling the truth.

Although the above sentences make sense in terms of their content, each one contains the same kind of error when it comes to pronouns.  In all three cases, the sentence begins with a singular noun: “each student,” “a leader,” and “anyone.” These singular nouns are replaced by the plural pronoun “they.” This is an error because, according to the norms of standard academic English, pronouns must agree in number. In other words, it does not make sense for someone to refer to “a leader” (which suggests one person) as “they” (which suggests more than one person).

So why do people make this mistake in the first place? The answer is that singular personal pronouns denote that person’s gender, and often there is no way of knowing the person’s gender. In the sentence about leaders, for example, “a leader” could refer to a female leader or to a male leader. This makes it difficult to decide whether to use “she” or “he,” so many speakers and writers use the gender-neutral pronoun “they,” even though it is technically not appropriate.

In the past, writers tended to use masculine pronouns as a default reference. For instance, they would simply write, “A leader is someone who knows when he needs to take action.” This grammatical choice implies an argument about men and women, suggesting that all leaders are male. More recently, some writers have taken the opposite approach, using feminine pronouns as the default option. Either way, choosing just one or the other excludes a large group of people, which can lead to inaccurate, limited, and sometimes offensive claims.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to work around this pronoun problem without privileging either men or women. The first is to pluralize the noun. Changing the noun into a plural makes it acceptable to use the plural pronoun later in the sentence. The sample sentences above would be revised thus:

All of the students knew where they should sit.

Leaders are people who know when they need to take action.

People who say they never lie are not telling the truth.

A second way to make your pronouns agree is to use both of the gender-specific pronouns. This is an acceptable solution, but you should be careful not to overuse it. A paragraph or an entire essay littered with the phrases “he or she” and “him or her” can become difficult to read. (Note that you may also reverse the order and say “she or he” and “her or him.” Whichever order you choose, try to stick to that order consistently throughout your document.) Using this method, the original sample sentences would look like this:

Each student knew where he or she should sit.

A leader is someone who knows when he or she needs to take action.

Anyone who says that he or she never lies is not telling the truth.

Finally, a third way to avoid pronoun agreement problems is to avoid using the pronoun altogether. Sometimes the best revision is reduction. Observe the following rewrites:

Each student knew where to sit.

A leader is someone who knows when to take action.

Anyone who claims to never lie is not telling the truth.

In the future, it may one day become acceptable in academic English to replace singular nouns with plural pronouns. For the moment, though, your best bet is to keep the singular with the singular and the plural with the plural.

Is it One Word or Two?

S Nicholas

The English language is difficult. So much of how we use words is intuitive. But what about non-native speakers who haven’t been taught English grammar since first grade? It must be terribly difficult! I’ve made a list of words I commonly see misused in papers I edit. Read on to see if these are mistakes you’ve made before.

A Lot versus Alot
What is the difference between a lot and alot? Alot is not a word. Ever. Under any circumstances. It is always, always, always separated into two words: a lot. You will probably frequently see the word written as alot, but it’s wrong. Don’t do it.

All right versus Alright
When is it all right to spell it alright? Simple: always use it in its two-word form: all right. Alright is found in dictionaries, but it is a rarely used form, and not a form you would use in formal writing anyway, so don’t use it. Always spell it in two words: all right.

Everyday versus Every Day
How about everyday versus every day? Everyday used as one word is an adjective. It describes a noun.
For example: My everyday dishes are not as pretty as my formal dishes.
Or: My everyday shoes wear out quickly, but my special occasion shoes do not, because I wear them infrequently.

When you use the phrase every day as two words, it is usually used as an adverb. An adverb is a word that describes a verb (an action word)…sort of like an adjective, but used on a verb, not a noun. An adjective describes a noun: look at that red dress. An adverb describes a verb: she walked slowly. How did she walk? Slowly. So, when using every day as two words, as an adverb, it would look like this: I walk around the block every day. When do I walk around the block? Every day.

A trick I like to use is to put the word “single” in between every and day, and if it works, I know I should use the two-word version. I walk around the block every single day. That works. Using the two-word option is correct.

But using a previous example, could I say: My every single day dishes are not as pretty as my formal dishes? No. That doesn’t work. So I need to use the one-word option, everyday. In this case, everyday is an adjective, describing the noun dishes.

Cannot versus Can Not
This is easy. It’s always cannot. It cannot be spelled can not. Ever. So don’t do it.

When in doubt, use a trusted dictionary to look up the word. Most dictionaries give examples, and you should be able to discern which version of the word to use.

Remember, a lot of people make grammar mistakes every day, but we cannot say that is all right. We must always strive to do our best!


By S Nicholas

The Little, Brown Handbook (1986) defines plagiarism as “the presentation of some else’s ideas or words as your own; from the Latin word for kidnapper.” See what I did there? I let you know that I did not make up that definition. I gave credit to my source.

Many of the papers we edit at EditMyEnglish are related to Ph.D. programs. And in the Ph.D. world, plagiarism is a HUGE deal! Those caught plagiarizing will be kicked out of their programs of study. In extreme cases, legal action might ensue!

So how do you avoid plagiarism? As one of my high school teachers taught me, when writing a paper, almost every sentence should be cited. That’s right! Almost every sentence! The sentences not containing citation are your very own. They are your thoughts that link one source to another source.

Your own thoughts do not need to be cited. For example, “I do not like cold weather.” That doesn’t need to be cited because it is your opinion. Common information also does not need to be cited. For example, if you say, “Florida is hot in the summer,” that doesn’t need to be cited. Most people generally acknowledge that Florida is hot in the summer.

Additionally, if you state common information, such as that the French Revolution took place from 1789-1799, it does not need to be cited. That is historic information, generally accepted to be true.

However, if you write any thoughts another author has shared on a topic, you do need to cite it. Someone else’s independent material, material attributed to them, would be ideas not generally known (unlike the dates of a war, or temperatures of a specific region, which ARE generally known).

You cannot take an author’s idea and re-word it a little and call it your own. Any idea you get from someone else needs to be cited. It is perfectly acceptable to use other works within your paper. Just cite the sources! In fact, the more outside sources you have in your paper, the stronger your thesis will be! But…you HAVE to cite all your sources.

The best way to avoid plagiarism is to cite your sources OR paraphrase the author’s material. To paraphrase correctly, without plagiarizing, use your own words to rephrase what another person said. Wait. Doesn’t that seem to conflict the preceding paragraph? Let’s look at an example:

Original: John F. Kennedy said, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” That quote could be used in a paper, citing Kennedy as the original author of that quote, and using quotation marks. It would be perfectly acceptable to do it this way.

Plagiarism: I think that as citizens of this country, we should not ask what our country can do for us but rather, we should think about what we can do for our country. In this case, only a few words were changed, but the original intent of the original quote remained intact without citing a source. Therefore, it is plagiarism.

Paraphrasing: A famous man once suggested that we should consider how we might be of service to others, rather than waiting on others to serve us. In this case, an attribution was made to a source, the main idea of the original thought was left intact, but the way it was stated was changed.

The main concept to grasp when writing a paper is that you have to acknowledge where you got your ideas. It is illegal to take someone’s property for your own use; it is also illegal to take someone else’s words (intellectual property) and use them as your own.

I can usually spot plagiarism easily. If I’m working on a paper, heavily editing each paragraph, and then suddenly come across a perfect paragraph, my suspicions are raised. There are now computer programs for teachers to use to help spot plagiarism. When in doubt, either find a source to cite, or word your sentence in such a way that the reader has no doubt who had that thought.

Good students are typically conscientious, citing heavily, and using their own words to link between other authors’ words.