Pronouns That Cause Problems for Even the Best Writers

A number of people have written me about my recent articles on pronouns to ask, in essence, if two accepted authorities express diametrically opposite views, what’s a writer to do? This is a tough one to answer, but what isn’t in the world of English grammar, ha ha. My suggestion is to go with what is accepted as convention, or at least that which is considered the “norm.” For example, not using a plural pronoun with “everyone” and “everybody” and other singular antecedents such as “anyone” and “anybody.”

I’m the first person to admit that “everyone went their own way” sounds just fine, and I much prefer this to “everyone went his own way.” But “their” coupled with “everyone” just won’t fly in most quarters, so I revise inconsistent modification such as this whenever I see it in a client’s writing. And I eschew the masculine “his,” even though it’s considered acceptable, opting for the nasal “his or her” as the correct way, politically and otherwise, to remedy this issue. My position is, why wave a red flag in front of a bull? The important “thing” to take from the articles on pronouns is that there are many ways to address the syntax surrounding them, but there is only so much wiggle room in some instances, and in a few cases there is none.

I could leave this at what I just wrote, but my outstanding copyeditor, Martha Moffett, researched this for me, and here’s want accepted expert Amy Einsohn says, followed by The New York Times’ position on the same issue of indefinite antecedents such as “everyone” and “everybody.”  For me, these explanations are right up there with the chicken or egg controversy.  So, get firmly settled in your chair, and here goes:

Amy Einsohn says (redacted):

During the 1990s a revolution occurred in the treatment of pronouns whose antecedents are indefinite pronouns, such as everyone and anyone. Through the 1980s most grammar and usage books insisted on “Everyone took his seat.” The tide has now turned, and the newer grammar books recommend using the plural pronoun after an indefinite subject: “Everyone took their seat.” The use of plural pronouns to refer to indefinite subjects has a 400-year history in English literature, and the pluralizers are in the majority in Merriam-Webster’s files of 20th century citations.

However, The New York Times says:

Anybody, anyone, everybody, everyone, no one, someone. Each of these pronouns is singular and requires he or she (never they) on further reference. “Has anybody lost his ticket?” To avoid assuming maleness or femaleness in a general reference, rephrase. “Has everyone bought a ticket?” Often a plural construction will serve: “Have people all bought tickets?” As a last resort, the awkward his or her is tolerable, a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent is not.

Isn’t this crystal clear for everyone now?


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