Saturday, June 6, 2015

When an English teacher prescribes an awful subject-agreement blunder

Arguably one of the prickliest aspects of the English language is that it doesn’t have a singular third-person possessive adjective of indeterminate gender. All that English has are the masculine “his” and the feminine “her," so what happens is that when a sentence has the indefinite pronoun “each,” “everyone,” or “everybody” for its subject, a grammatical dysfunction invariably arises when that pronoun is the antecedent of a possessive-case construction later in the sentence. Consider this example: “Each student should value _____ education.” Should the possessive modifier be “his,” “her,” or “their”? Choosing from among the three usually stumps even the most English-savvy people, for virtually none of them can do the modifying job logically and indisputably. But one English teacher chose the plural “their” without even qualifying it and even had the effrontery to post the usage on Facebook: “Each student should value their education.” Predictably, one doubting student brought it to my attention, and in a recent essay in The Manila Times that I wrote in reply and is now posted below, I described that prescription as “at best contentiously correct and at worst indefensibly wrong” because of the glaring subject-verb disagreement that it engenders. (June 6, 2015)

The possessive disconnect of ‘each’ and ‘everyone’

Let’s talk about the prickly disconnect that develops when indefinite pronouns are used as antecedents of nouns in the possessive case.

A student, Mary Anne Fernandez, recently asked me this provocative question in the Facebook page of Jose Carillo’s English Forum: “My English teacher posted this sentence on his Facebook wall: ‘Each student should value their education.’ Is this grammatically correct?”

My first instinct was to say that her English teacher was prescribing a monumental subject-verb agreement blunder, but I changed my mind and told her that he probably just got carried away by a wrongheaded grammar guidance from somewhere. Indeed, it’s at best contentiously correct and at worst indefensibly wrong to use the plural possessive “their” when the antecedent is any of these indefinite pronouns: “each,” “everyone,” and “everybody.” 

Recall that “each,” “everyone,” and “everybody” are notionally plural but grammatically singular pronouns that refer to every unspecified person in a group. Despite their inherent duality in sense, however, hardly any unforeseeable subject-verb disagreement arises when these indefinite pronouns are used in the nominative or subjective case, as in “Each has a role to perform in this major undertaking” and “Everyone is expected to be here by 12:00 midnight.” This is true in the objective case as well, as in “I gave each a token of appreciation” and “The teacher treated everybody with respect in the class.”

But these indefinite pronouns have the built-in drawback of giving rise to grammatical dysfunction when used as antecedents in possessive-case constructions—the unhappy result of English not having a singular third-person possessive adjective of indeterminate gender. All that English has are the masculine “his” and the feminine “her.” So, when the antecedent subject is any of those three indefinite pronouns, the equivocal possessive “his or her” is typically used to modify the object noun to ensure grammatical correctness: “Each student should value his or her education.”

The problem with using “his or her,” however, is that it irritatingly suggests that the writer or speaker is clueless—or vacillating—on whether the antecedent subject are males or females. Worse, the more that usage is repeated, the more it frays the nerves of readers and listeners.

The traditional recourse for avoiding this semantic and stylistic problem is to use the masculine “his” as default possessive adjective. With gender equality now the order of the day in most democratic societies, however, “his” as default usage is now widely frowned upon as unacceptably sexist.

This is why the plural “their” has gained some currency as default usage in such grammatical situations:  “Each student should value their education.” I do think, however, that it is misguided—perhaps even insolent—for an English teacher to endorse using “them” to skirt the gender disconnect in possessive usage; to my mind, the subject-verb disagreement is so glaring as to make the cure worse than the disease, so to speak. The better part of valor for grammar teachers would be to qualify that sentence not as prescribed usage but only as an undesirable fallback when every other alternative fails.

But are there, in fact, other options for avoiding that grammatical impasse? There are actually two: one is surefire, and the other advisable only when the syntax of the particular sentence allows it.

The first is to replace those three indefinite pronouns with the plural “all,” then use the possessive adjective “their” to modify the object noun, as in “All students should value their education.” Even without “students” to modify, “all” works very well as a stand-alone subject in that sentence: “All should value their education.”

The second, but only if the sentence will still read and sound right, is to drop the possessive adjective “their” altogether, as in “All students should value education.” This, I must say, is neater and much more elegant than that teacher’s patently objectionable grammar prescription.

This essay first appeared in the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, June 6, 2015 issue © 2015 by Manila Times Publishing. All rights reserved.

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