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Plural Pronouns versus Singular Subjects and Objects

One of the more common mistakes we find is the misuse of words like they, them, and their. These are plural pronouns, and they should not be used with singular objects or subjects. For example, your might mistakenly write something like this:

“When a person writes a paper they should do their best to write it correctly”.

Instead, the sentence should look something like this:

“When a person writes a paper he or she should do his or her best to write it correctly”.

That sounds a bit awkward, right? Indeed it does, and there are several ways to fix this. First, the confusion between plural pronouns and singular objects or subjects often arises during an attempt to be gender neutral. To avoid confusion you might simply switch between using he and she. For example, you might write something like this:

“When a person writes a paper he should do his best to write it correctly”.

Later in the piece, you might then switch to the feminine form:

“When a person is caught speeding she should pay a fine”.

Second, you can switch to using plural subjects and objects. For example, try writing this:

“When people write papers they should do their best to write them correctly”.

Third, you can try writing directly to the reader, although I don’t recommend this solution for academic writing, especially if you are using the British English standard. For example, you might right this:

“When you write a paper you should do your best to write it correctly”.

However, as the following video explains, using words like they, them, and their in reference to singular objects and subjects may be acceptable in some contexts.

The Awkward Case of "His or Her"

The following link provides more information on they, them, and their and on how to avoid using plural pronouns with singular subjects and objects.

Grammar Trap: their, they, them vs. his, he, him

 

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