The Penultimate Word

“They” is Not Singular

I just finished reading about 60 applications for teacher of the year for our school district, and I kept coming across sentences like this:

I work to give each individual child the attention and approach they need and deserve.

I can’t tell you how many times teachers have sent notes home with my children that are full of misspellings and poor grammar. Kind of scary when you think that these men and women are teaching our children.

"They" refers to more than one.So, what’s wrong with the sentence above? Well, it may seem like a minor thing, but it drives me crazy: it mixes a singular noun (child) with a plural pronoun (they). Granted, in conversation, we’ve probably all been guilty of putting plural pronouns to singular use, but nevertheless, it’s still considered illiterate … at least for now.

For now, we have three options:

  • Make the noun plural.  I work to give all children the attention and approach they need and deserve.
  • Use the traditional masculine pronoun (or make a political statement by using the feminine pronoun).  I work to give each individual child the attention and approach he [she] needs and deserves.
  • Use the politically correct, but awkward “he/she” combinationI work to give each individual child the attention and approach he or she needs and deserves.

Sorry, but those are the only options.

You can be a rebel if you want, and combine singular nouns with plural pronouns, but keep an eye out for grammar geeks wielding red pens looking for any excuse to mark you down.

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