Gender equality is an important element of our culture, so it comes as no surprise that it also affects our writing. What may be a surprise is the vast majority of us commit a major grammatical error because of our desire to remain gender neutral. Let’s take a look at one of the most common grammatical mistakes individuals make when both speaking and writing.
Nouns and Gender Neutrality
Nouns (which can be persons, places, or things) are one of the most basic parts of speech. Singular nouns refer to only one person/place/thing (I, he, she, dog, American, or hamburger), while plural nouns refer to multiple people/places/things (we, they, dogs, Americans, or hamburgers).
That’s all pretty simple. Here comes the harder part: Everything in a sentence must agree with the noun, so a singular noun must stay singular in the same sentence, and a plural noun must then stay plural. However, we sometimes begin a sentence with a singular noun and then throw in a plural noun. Let’s take a look at an example of this.
Incorrect Example: A child should try their best in school.
Corrected Example: Children should try their best in school OR A child should try his or her best in school.
Okay, so looking at the incorrect example, there is a singular noun (child) with a plural possessive pronoun (their). Basically, the sentence uses both a singular word and a plural word. The sentence changes from one child to multiple children since their is a plural form.
Situations like this happen all the time in oral and written communication. Why? Gender neutrality. In the past, he would be used instead of their in this situation. This has of course changed with society. A sentence that reads “A child should try his best in school” would appear sexist, as it implies that a child can only be male. Thus, we automatically use the plural version (their), as it avoids specifying gender. However, this breaks the rule of sentence consistency, with a singular noun remaining singular when referred to in the same sentence and a plural noun remaining plural when referred to in the same sentence. So now we face a conundrum: Do we choose gender neutrality or grammatical correctness?
Fixing Singular and Plural Sentence Agreement Problems
As most of us agree we would like gender neutrality and correct grammar, we hope to write with both in mind. Fortunately, there are two ways to fulfill these requirements of being grammatically correct and avoiding sexist language.
I have found the easiest solution is to use plural nouns whenever possible. In general situations, rather than use phrases such as a child, say instead children. Use the plural forms of all nouns unless the situation calls for a singular noun. If plural nouns are used, then sexist language is typically avoided, as plural noun forms do not specify gender. Here’s an example of an incorrect sentence and how it is fixed using this technique:
Incorrect Example: A good teacher will listen to their students and improve from the feedback.
Corrected Example: Good teachers will listen to their students and improve from the feedback.
The second solution sometimes makes the sentence a bit wordy, but it may be the only fix in certain circumstances. This solution is to use his or her in place of plural noun forms such as their. This will keep the sentence singular while also remaining gender neutral. Typically, his or her should be used when a singular noun is needed. If you can fix a sentence by making it plural, as explained in the first solution, then that is likely the best option. However, sometimes you simply need to use singular noun forms, and this becomes your best option. Let’s take a look at an incorrect example and how it is fixed through this technique.
Incorrect Example: When you encounter an escaped convict, do not approach them.
Correct Example: When you encounter an escaped convict, do not approach him or her.
In this above example, it is difficult to change the sentence to a plural form, so him or her is the best choice to make the sentence correct. You will likely come across a few of these sentences on occasion. Use your best judgment when choosing between the two solutions and feel free to experiment with both.
Why Does Any of This Matter?
So, here is the million dollar question: Why does any of this matter? There are several reasons but two that really stand out. First, shifting from singular to plural nouns and vice versa certainly confuses the meaning of the sentence. It will make it hard to distinguish whether an object is singular or plural if it shifts halfway through a sentence. Understanding writing will be much more difficult if everyone decided to ignore this grammar lesson. Second, verbs change depending on whether a sentence uses singular or plural nouns. For example, in the sentence “The dolphin jumps into the air,” the dolphin is singular and the verb matches it. The verb in this same sentence would need to change to jump if the singular noun of The dolphin changed to The dolphins. In short, the issue of singular and plural noun agreement affects other aspects of grammar.
Here is another common question posed on the subject: Since the majority of us automatically slip into using them and they in place of the correct singular forms, why don’t we just accept the plural forms as correct? Well, there have certainly been arguments for changing them and they to act as both singular and plural nouns, as well as arguments for introducing an entirely new word that will be a singular, gender neutral version of he/she and him/her. But for now, nothing has been decided, so we need to make the best of it and use the solutions we discussed earlier. Also, after enough practice, using the correct singular and plural forms will become automatic in your writing.