Grammar, Pronoun/Antecedent

Proper Pronouns, Please!

Sherman Alexie--Pronoun Antecedent

I found this error on a Sherman Alexie poster in the hallway of the English department at my alma mater. Ironic, I know.

We have another case of pronoun/antecedent disagreement (on the text on the far right of the poster). The first word of the sentence is concealed, but the sentence reads, “Any man or woman with a book in their hand is sexier.”

The problem is that man and woman are singular, separated by the coordinating conjunction or, so the pronoun should not be their, a third-person plural pronoun. I don’t really like correcting these sorts of mistakes with his/her or he/she. The construction is rather awkward and interrupts the natural flow of a sentence.

To fix something like this, I like to, if at all possible, make the subject plural. In this case, that will work, so I would suggest this fix: “Men or women with books in their hands are sexier.”

People with books in their hands might be sexier, but those with books in their hands — and who use correct grammar — are sexiest.


2 thoughts on “Proper Pronouns, Please!”

  1. Debatable, in your example, surely the writer is suggesting the selection of one of many from a group, i.e. gender based, so as a representative of a large group that person is holding a book.

    As the sign is further suggesting that you further have the selection of one of two gender groups, the holder becomes gender neutral and therefore the possessive becomes gender neutral and “THEIR”.

    For an American English slant on this:

    1. Thanks for the link and the comment, Tony. I still think I’m going to stick to my claim. You can see here (No. 2) that when you have singular nouns separated by “or,” you would use the singular verb “is,” which has been done here. To me, if you are using a singular verb, that means your noun is singular, and you should, therefore, make the noun and pronoun agree in number, which, in this case, would be singular. Personally, I would rewrite the sentence to say, “Any man or woman with a book in hand is sexier.” I often just do a rewrite if I don’t want to get into the sticky territory of pronoun/antecedent agreement.

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