Agreeing to Disagree



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.



8 thoughts on “Agreeing to Disagree

  1. Jane-
    I was listening to the BBC America very early Friday morning as I drove back from a gig in Buffalo, and was struck by the mistakes a French-speaking footballer playing in England made when talking about what it was like living in London. Listening closer, I realized most of the mistakes he made came from the unique nature of French syntax and the speaker’s natural adherence to French sentence structure and idiom when learning and speaking in a second language. The speaker, though guilty of a number of errors, spoke eloquently and…well….fluently throughout the five minute interview. Remembering my own clunky times living in other-than-English-speaking countries, it struck me that it was far more important that he’d found a way to communicate directly than it was that he obeyed all the rules.
    I think such a thing applies here, as well, especially at this point in our linguistic evolution. Teaching a student to get to the point, the crux, of what she wants to communicate is far more vital to writing and communication than merely concentrating on rules. “College” or “academic” writing is probably a foreign language to many students – some have read enough to become fluent both in the vocabulary and in the syntax of it rather quickly, but most others are probably very much like an Algerian footballer in London.

  2. Another casualty to the moorings of time is “whom.” I’ve never used the word once in my life. Why not just use “who?” It does the job and people know to what it refers. The arcane distinction between the two pronouns ends up being unimportant. Writers inherently order a sentence to phase out the need for “whom”. That solution works fine, but the problem I have arises when I run across it in a paper. I’m going to pull a statistic out of my generalization-loving butt and say that “whom” is used incorrectly 90 percent of the time. The proud, few ten percent of writers that do use it correctly are making a stylistic error for using phrasing that’s archaic.

    What do I do?

    Do I correct it? Do I chastise the writer for reading too much Shakespeare? Maybe I’m delusional for believing they read Shakespeare in the first place.

    • I am not ready to let go of whom. It’s easy. You just use whom wherever you’d use her, or him.
      I think explaining subjective and objective pronouns is a lot easier than pronoun/antecedent agreement.

  3. Great post, Jane! I can see your point, and I agree that there are more egregious errors than pronoun antecedent agreement problems. I tend to mention it once in a paper when it is completely obvious, but then I move on. Where do we draw the line, however? For example, will it ever become acceptable to use “i” instead of “I” or to ignore the differences between “there” and “their” or “to” and “too”? I don’t know. The best part about language is that it changes to suit our needs, and as writing instructors, we need to decide when a change is acceptable and when it’s worth fighting against (such as the rule of ending a sentence with a preposition, which I argue is OK). =)

  4. He graphs the results the day he collects them (an upward trend is visible), sends out an e-mail telling the class about any fine-tuning he plans in response to their comments, and starts the following class by discussing the feedback..

    The sentence above is from today’s New York Times. This is way I am abandoning this fight. If the New York Times does it, it’s clear that “their” has become the new “gender neutral singular pronoun”

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