The Hipster Nerd’s Pronoun Crisis

This hipster nerd has enthusiastically taught grammar.

I do not want to be that hipster nerd who looks for grammar errors.  We all know her.  She is well-read, she subscribes to literary and political journals, she writes on a typewriter, and she is annoyed that editors are not doing their job.

Yet I must conclude that I am that woman now.

It is not my fault.  I do not go over articles with a fine-toothed comb.  The errors jump off the page at me–not just typos, but egregious grammatical mistakes. We bloggers have an excuse for errors–we do not have editors– but professional writers are no longer edited very well.

I have concluded that there is a pronoun crisis.  Editors no longer understand the correct use of pronouns (he, she, it, they, one, everyone, anyone, someone, who, etc.).  And they have not mastered that simplest of rules, the agreement of pronouns with their antecedents in gender and number. Take the following incredibly awkward sentence, patterned on one I saw recently in a prestigious journal,

“The blogger was asked by a physics professor what they did for a living.”

Note that the pronoun they is plural (more than one), while its antecedent,  blogger, is singular (one).  Here are two correct versions of that sentence. “The blogger was asked by a physics professor what he did for a living.” “The blogger was asked by a physics professor what she did for a living.”  Here are two slightly less awkward versions:  “A physics professor asked the blogger what he did for a living,” or “A physics professor asked the blogger what she did for a living.”

Colloquial English has long been preferred to literary English. And it is probable that Millennials and subsequent generations have not studied grammar, because their English teachers did not study it.   Many learn pronouns from studying foreign languages, or from reading great books.  If standards drop, the grammar of written tradition will disappear.

I hate to see professional writers make these mistakes. But according to a reporter at The Washington Post, “the singular they” (and there is no such thing) was adopted in its style guide in 2015.  The reporter uses the following example:  “Everyone wants their cat to succeed.”  What on earth does that mean? But if one wants to say it, one should say, “Everyone wants his or her cat to succeed.”

Ron Charles, editor of the book pages at  The Washington Post, uses impeccable English. And the editors of The New York Times know how to make pronouns agree with their antecedents.

Jen Doll’s article in The Atlantic, “The Singular They Must Be Stopped,” certainly reflects my feelings.   She writes, “Every time I see a singular they, my inner grammatical spirit aches.”


What are your pet peeves about grammar?