Choosing the Correct Pronoun - Singular vs Plural
Consider the following the sentences:
- If a child skips breakfast, they may have a hard time concentrating in school.
- If a person has an emergency, they should dial 9-1-1.
Read aloud, you may not find any errors in the sentences. English majors may find several issues with the structure of the sentences. For me, however, only one issue stands out: The error in subject-pronoun or pronoun-antecedent agreement. In the above examples, the singular subjects “child” and “person” are referred to with the plural pronoun “they”. This is an error that occurs not only in writing but also in speech. It is known as a shift in number. This occurs when the noun used as the subject of a sentence is referred to with an incorrect pronoun in number.
The sample sentences use the word “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun in an attempt to avoid sexist language and be inclusive. Although commonly accepted, it is grammatically incorrect and should not be used in formal writing. Corrected, the sentences should read:
- If a child skips breakfast, he or she may have a hard time concentrating in school.
- If a person has an emergency, he or she should dial 9-1-1.
Now, the singular subjects (antecedents) are replaced with singular pronouns.
Subject Pronoun Chart
First Person: Singular: I Plural: We
Second Person: Singular: You Plural: You
Third Person: Singular: He, She, It Plural: They
A quick review: First person is the speaker(s) or writer(s). Second person is the person or people being spoken or written to. Third person is the person or people being spoken or written about. In the example sentences, “child” and “person” are third person singular subjects (antecedents); therefore, to prevent a shift in number, third person singular pronouns should be used.