ENGLISH 101. ACADEMIC WRITING
Instructions for Lesson 22
Read this page. Grammar, style, and writing mechanics now come into
focus as we edit and revise our drafts.
Correct use of the English language, use according to the rule book, is demanded at the Academy. You won't pass the English 101 Final Exam without it. Take time to study Dr. E's presentations below, including her linked pages.
Here's an example of the most common grammar mistake in North America: Each student should have their own ID number.
Let me explain a bit: a pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun. The noun which the pronoun replaces is called its antecedent. In the following example
the antecedent of He is Jack, and the antecedent of it is ball.
Easy? Yes! It's also easy to see that the pronoun should agree with--or match--its antecedent in ''number.'' That is, if the antecedent is singular, the pronoun should be singular; if the antecedent is plural, the pronoun should be plural. Here are a few examples:
So, what about the most common mistake? Each student should have their own ID number? The pronoun their refers back to student. But student is a singular noun, and their a plural pronoun.
Frankly, I spend tons of time each semester correcting this mistake in student papers. Americans just seem to love to use the pronouns they, them, themselves, their and theirs to refer back to all nouns, singular or plural--it doesn't matter. Why ? Why can't we refer back to singular nouns with singular pronouns ? Why are we always reaching for they, them, themselves, their and theirs instead ?
Consider Peter Drucker's short essay "The Work of the Manager.'' Drucker today is thought of as the father of modern business management. His books are classics in this now-crowded field, but here's the opening paragraph of this particular essay:
Notice that in this paragraph, Drucker assumes that the manager is a man. (Well, this article was written in the 1950's, so he was probably right.) Also notice how grammatically correct it is for Drucker to use the singular pronoun he or his to refer back to the antecedent man. That's a singular pronoun (he or his) to refer to a singular noun (man).
So far, so good, But now notice what Drucker does in the paragraphs that follow that opening one:
In his opening paragraph, Drucker refers back to the singular noun man with the singular pronoun he, as is logical to do. But notice that when Drucker uses the generic word manager (which is neither masculine nor feminine) he still refers back to this generic noun with the masculine pronoun he. Drucker was simply following a grammar rule of his day which said, "Always refer to a neuter or generic antecedent with the masculine pronoun."
This same rule would produce the sentence: "Each student should use his own ID number.'' During the 1970s, however, American feminists fought to get this male pronoun preference rule kicked out of the textbooks. The new rule in American English says that we should always refer back to a generic noun with both masculine and feminine pronouns. So we say: Each student should have his or her own ID number.
This technical solution is all well and good, except that the rule is too much work for us. We are lazy. Instead of his or her, we slide into their. Someday the textbooks may allow each student to have their own ID, but for now it is best to say that students (plural) can have their (plural) own ID's.
1) When you read "The Work of the Manager," can you see why, decades ago, feminists were upset with the masculine-pronoun-preference rule ?
2) But do you think that Drucker should have replaced each ''he'' with a ''he or she''? That would produce sentences like these: Every manager does these things when he or she manages--whether he or she knows it or not. He or she may do them well, or he or she may do them wretchedly. But he or she always does them.
Does this sound insanely wordy?
3) Do you think that people are choosing the pronouns they, them and their in order to avoid being insanely wordy on the one hand or sexist on the other ?
4) Listen to your friends and associates. Which choices are they making?
5) And how would you revise Drucker's sentences to respect contemporary values and avoid wordiness ?
G's Note: The "sexist" issue goes well beyond the he-manager
problem. For instance our language allows a plural for
"Mr."--namely "Messrs."--but there's no plural for
For a full review of English grammar, and typical student writing problems, please review the links below:
See also Dr. E's web site A Grammar Sequence for College Writers.
3. Other language help
Grammar and technical aspects of English are also reviewed in detail in Hacker's A Pocket Style Manual
Hacker's companion web site contains many useful grammar exercises and interesting language debates. If you are asked to sign in, use your name and Dr. G's public email address: email@example.com.
Left: Peter Drucker, management guru.