In Praise of Pronouns

I admire a beautifully-turned sentence. It doesn’t have to be decorative but it must be clear. Alas, grammar errors proliferate on the internet and spill over into the publishing industry.

You can’t imagine how boring it is to find yourself silently editing a novel you’re reading for fun.  Writers and editors seem especially perplexed by pronouns.  Mind you, a grammar workshop could cure the problems.

I am reading an advance copy of Karen Thompson Walker’s new novel, The Dreamers.   (It’s a good read.)  Alas, in Chapter 3, the relative pronouns, who and whom, are confused.

“…two of the girls reconcile by phone with the faraway boys who they loved so much in high school and who they had thought, until now, they’d outgrown.”

Of course the correct form is whom, because the relative pronoun is the direct object.  Who is used only as the subject.

It should be:

…whom they loved so much in high school…

…and whom they had thought, until now, they’d outgrown.

In the first relative clause –  every clause has its own verb –  they is the subject, loved is the verb, and whom is the direct object.  In the second relative clause, they (they’d) is the subject, [had] outgrown is the verb, and whom is the direct object.

Here’s a chart:

who – only used as subject!
whose —possessive
to or for whom – indirect object
whom – direct object
whom – object of prepositions, by, with, after, about, etc.

It’s too late to send a friendly correction but I hope the editors found the errors in time!

AND NOW ANOTHER PRONOUN ERROR.   Anna-Marie McLemore’s Blanca & Roja has received enthusiastic reviews.  I ordered this retold fairy tale because it sounds rather like Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood, one of my favorites of the year.

In the very first sentence I found an error.

Everyone has their own way of telling our story.”

It’s never good to lead with an error.

Their is the pronoun error.

The subject, everyone, is singular indefinite pronoun, and of course the verb,  has, is singular, too.  The subject and verb must agree in number.   But then the writer switches to their, the plural possessive personal pronoun,  to refer back to the singular everyone.   The possessive pronoun should agree in number with the noun it refers back to.  In other words, it should be singular here.

Here are three correct versions of the sentence.

Everyone has his own way of telling our story.

Everyone has her own way of telling our story. 

Everyone has his or her own way of telling our story.

And if you don’t like the use of “his” or “her,” you can substitute “All” for “Everyone.”

All have their own way of telling our story.

I have seen nothing else untoward in the  few pages I’ve read.  Do I give the book a chance, or return it to the bookstore because of a grammar error?

Do you, too, silently correct grammar?

6 thoughts on “In Praise of Pronouns”

  1. “Their” has been creeping in as a substitute for “his or her”, to considerable confusion sometimes. I was reading a news story recently about an unknown individual, as in “we did not know who did the dirty deed.” Suddenly the perpetrator multiplied, as we “we did not know their motives.”

    1. Yes, it is dismaying. And it is so easy to correct these errors. It’s really just matching! Either people never learned grammar (probable) or are too lazy to bother about it.

    1. Your English is elegant, partly because you do know grammar! When we form our grammar business and become millionaires (ha ha), you get Europe. Nancy and I must save America from pronoun gaffes. 🙂

  2. I’m always silently correcting grammar, too, and I don’t care that there are changing patterns: I still feel like everyone should remain singular (there’s a movement towards pluralling it, apparently). For fun, I’ve been reading the latest issue of the Chicago Manual, and I sniffle when they report a shift. *reaches for tissue*

    1. I will reach for the tissues, too. And I will doubtless go mad if I look at the latest Chicago Manual!

      On Tue, Dec 18, 2018 at 12:58 PM Thornfield Hall: A Book Blog wrote:


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