Why do peo­ple use plu­ral pro­nouns for sin­gu­lar nouns?

Westside Eagle-Observer - - OPINION - By Randy Moll Randy Moll is the man­ag­ing edi­tor of the West­side Ea­gle Ob­server. He may be con­tacted by email at [email protected] Opin­ions ex­pressed are those of the edi­tor.

English is a com­plex lan­guage — some­what of a con­glom­er­a­tion of words taken from nu­mer­ous other lan­guages — and gram­mat­i­cal rules, it seems, have so many ex­cep­tions and vari­a­tions that it’s hard to know whether to fol­low the rules or not. I say this only to ex­plain that, un­like many other lan­guages which are con­sis­tent, English is a dif­fi­cult lan­guage to mas­ter for those who wish to con­verse or write cor­rectly in it.

Do­ing the work of a copy edi­tor for sev­eral weekly news­pa­pers gives me am­ple op­por­tu­nity to strug­gle with get­ting things writ­ten and stated cor­rectly, fol­low­ing the rules of gram­mar and spelling. And, to help with the task, news­pa­pers of­ten use style guides. But, there are dif­fer­ent style guides, and they don’t al­ways agree. In fact, style guides change and what was cor­rect last year may not be cor­rect this year or next — the one on my desk says 2005, so I’m clearly quite out­dated.

The gram­mat­i­cal and spelling er­rors I see in sub­mis­sions and some­times in staff ar­ti­cles are many, but one mis­take that seems to top the list as most com­mon is con­fu­sion when us­ing sin­gu­lar and plu­ral noun and verb forms. And it usu­ally stems from us­ing a sin­gu­lar noun as the sub­ject of a sen­tence and then us­ing a plu­ral pro­noun for that sin­gu­lar noun in the pred­i­cate, along with plu­ral verb forms.

Per­haps I may have lost ev­ery­one but the English teach­ers by now, but an ex­am­ple may help.

Proper nouns for or­ga­ni­za­tions like a church, a club, a gov­ern­ment en­tity or a busi­ness are usu­ally sin­gu­lar; i.e., First Bap­tist Church, Sticky Stamp Club, or Good Food Gro­cery Store. Yet, when peo­ple use such sin­gu­lar proper nouns as the sub­ject, they of­ten use the plu­ral pro­nouns “they” or “them” in a sec­ondary phrase or clause.

For ex­am­ple, peo­ple will write some­thing like this: “Good Food Gro­cery Store is hav­ing a sale, and they are giv­ing cus­tomers 20 per­cent off the reg­u­lar price.”

The pro­noun should agree with the noun for which it is sub­sti­tuted. In the above ex­am­ple, since Good Food Gro­cery Store is sin­gu­lar, the sec­ond part of the above sen­tence should read: “and it is giv­ing cus­tomers 20 per­cent off the reg­u­lar price.”

It seems this mis­take is most com­mon in ref­er­ence to groups with more than one mem­ber, such as coun­cils, boards, con­gre­ga­tions and com­pa­nies with mul­ti­ple em­ploy­ees. Per­haps it’s be­cause our brains as­so­ci­ate these sin­gu­lar groups with the mul­ti­ple mem­bers within the group that we make the shift to plu­ral, but it isn’t the cor­rect way to speak or write English. If a proper noun is sin­gu­lar, the pro­noun and verb forms con­nected to that pro­noun should be sin­gu­lar. A city coun­cil, a board of di­rec­tors, a church or con­gre­ga­tion, and a busi­ness or com­pany are sin­gu­lar, and a sin­gu­lar pro­noun with a sin­gu­lar verb should be used.

Thus, it would be cor­rect to say: “The Gravette School Board de­cided to adopt the bud­get, and it passed the mea­sure by a unan­i­mous vote.” It would be in­cor­rect to say: “The Gravette School Board de­cided to adopt the bud­get, and they passed the mea­sure by a unan­i­mous vote.”

This re­mains true when the pro­noun be­comes the ob­ject of a prepo­si­tion. It is wrong to say: “Af­ter I signed pa­pers at the car deal­er­ship, I gave my down pay­ment to them.” It is cor­rect to say: “Af­ter I signed pa­pers at the car deal­er­ship, I gave my down pay­ment to it.” Of course, it may sound bet­ter to say: “Af­ter I signed pa­pers at the car deal­er­ship, I gave my down pay­ment to the deal­er­ship.”

The same holds true with posses­sive pro­nouns — use sin­gu­lar with sin­gu­lar and plu­ral with plu­ral. Don’t say: “The Class of 1980 held a ban­quet as their way of get­ting ev­ery­one to­gether.” Say or write: “The Class of 1980 held a ban­quet as its way of get­ting ev­ery­one to­gether.”

That brings up another fre­quent er­ror which seems to break the rules — “its” ver­sus “it’s.” While the apos­tro­phe is of­ten used to in­di­cate a posses­sive form, not so with its. The word “its” is posses­sive, and “it’s” is a con­trac­tion be­tween it and is.

It’s a com­pli­cated thing to write cor­rectly in the English lan­guage, but its ben­e­fits can make the ef­fort worth­while for each reader as he or she seeks to un­der­stand the mes­sage con­veyed to him or her. Of course, there was a day when the mas­cu­line pro­noun could be used to re­fer to a per­son of ei­ther sex when the sex of the sub­ject was not clearly iden­ti­fied. Now, it seems, we have to use “him or her,” “she or he,” or al­ter­nate to show our un­cer­tainty — that might be another rea­son peo­ple shift to the non­gen­der-spe­cific plu­ral, “them” and “they.”

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