>One of the things I have been emphasizing with my students (I teach freshman composition in a community college) is noun-pronoun agreement. The rule as stated in Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage is “Where it can’t be avoided, resort to it cautiously because some people may doubt your literacy” The justification for allowing disagreement usually involves avoidance of sexist language, but in my eyes that’s a lazy writer’s excuse.
So I was disappointed today when I received a donation solicitation from One Story magazine that included this option:
Editor: $100 – I’ll pay one author for their story
And there we have noun-pronoun disagreement from a respected magazine. Is solecism preferable to sexism? Maybe, but why not go the extra word or two and avoid the problem? “I’ll pay an author for one story,” or even “I’ll pay one author for a story.” There are lots of options. Fortunately, my students are not likely to see this, and so I may be able to preserve my credibility at least until the end of the semester.
>Ah, but later on (p. 718), Garner notes, “Though the masculine singular personal pronoun may survive awhile longer as a generic term, it will probably be displaced ultimately by “they,” which is coming to be used alternatively as singular or plural….That it sets many literate Americans’ teeth on edge is an unfortunate obstacle to what promises to be the ultimate solution to the problem.”
>That’s true, although we’re not there yet. (And I wish my students used “they” as a non-sexist solution to a problem, but in fact they don’t think about it when they do it, and I suppose that’s what I’m trying to address.) So, for now, I’m going with the rule that it should be avoided if possible, and it’s almost always possible.
In contemporary British English (I’m less familiar with US English), “their” happens to have an alternative meaning of “his or her”. It’s true that this usage is recent but so what?
>I don’t care if a usage is recent, but I do care about ambiguities. If a reader needs to spend any extra time trying to figure out what a writer means, then it’s an obstacle to understanding, and the disagreement in number between pronoun and antecedent creates such a vagueness. Did the author intend for the antecedent to be plural? Or does the pronoun in fact refer to a plural antecedent that is misplaced? I understand that this has become more common in British usage, but I’ll continue to battle against it in American writing, because I consider it sloppy. (And, fortunately, I’m not alone.)