I made a decision the other day while I was grading a set of papers: I will no longer fight the pronoun/antecedent agreement battle. I’m giving up on it. I am chalking it up to the evolution of language. Someday I will not cringe when someone says, “The student was upset with the grade on their paper.” I haven’t gotten to the “not cringing” stage yet. I still cringe. I could no more make that mistake in my own work than say “She don’t” or “ain’t.”
Semester after semester, I grade students’ papers where sentences like “When someone reads this book, they will find that the author writes in third person” appear. Is the pronoun/antecedent disagreement the most egregious problem in this sentence? I don’t think so. The sentence could read perfectly well as “This author writes in third person.” This new sentence is half as long. It gets to the point without the unnecessary introductory word group, and the “they will find that.” If I call a student’s attention to the pronoun/antecedent problem, he will not fix the rest of the sentence. He will focus on a part of the sentence that he really should delete anyway. So, one reason to not fight this battle is that it often detracts from the more serious writing problems in a sentence. Focusing on really fixing the sentence so that it is clear and precise is more important than the agreement problem.
The second reason I have given up on this battle is that students don’t really understand the problem. I can do examples on the board, and correct the problem in their papers over and over, I can send them to handbooks and websites, and they still make the error over and over in their papers. I know how it is. They start a sentence with “Someone” and then they get to “Someone who wants (?) education to be meaningful will put a lot of effort into (?) work. My students have all been brought up in a time when saying “Someone/ his” is no longer acceptable because it is sexist language. They are stuck with a “gender neutral” pronoun with “someone” but then when they come to the possessive pronouns, they have no idea what to do.
The obvious answer, to an English teacher, is avoid the “someone” and use “people” or use some other solid plural noun. Then the plural possessive pronoun is not a problem. To people who write all the time, it’s an automatic fix, but college freshman and sophomores are not, for the most part, people to whom writing comes easily. What I want from college writers is fluency and accuracy. I think I can teach those qualities without dwelling on pronoun/antecedent agreement.
Language evolves. We don’t speak that way the Elizabethans spoke. The “Someone/their” usage is less sexist than assuming that the pronoun “his” is universal. Some people have made attempts at creating a gender- neutral singular pronouns, and they have not been very successful. This change is probably inevitable. I am not going to fight it. When my students write “someone has left their book on the table,” I know what they mean. Instead of focusing on the pronoun/antecedent problem, I am going to focus on helping my students write the clearest, cleanest, and most concise sentences they can.