Why do people use plural pronouns for singular nouns?
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what was correct last year may not be correct this year or next — the one on my desk says 2005, so I’m clearly quite outdated.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.”