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.