Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the other forms. Languages are produced democratically, and perhaps none remains more democratic than English. In other words, English is messy. It has conflicting rules about certain things and no rules where there really ought to be one.
If we had a language run by a benevolent oligarchy, we’d have a neutral third-person singular pronoun by now. We don’t. And for now, we just have to live with it.
Another case where our language fails us is in the awkwardness of linking an object to a plural subject, also known as subject-complement agreement. Should we refer to one object or multiple objects? This is a consistent question I get, and it always causes me to scratch my head.
Here are two examples that were sent to me in the past couple of days on Twitter:
“It is a time when teams take a look at their roster and decide whether it’s good enough to be a contender or if it’s time to start rebuilding for next season.”
Should the teams look at their “rosters”? Do they share a roster? “A contender” or “contenders”? Plural subject, plural verb, plural pronoun, singular object?
“Dear members, … Please give us your name and e-mail address for fact-checking purposes.”
If you are addressing multiple members of an organization, should you be asking for their names and addresses rather than name and address? Plural subject, neutral verb, singular object?
The answer is not a clear pronouncement to be found in any style guide, but rather a shrug and the fallback rule: “Do what you think sounds right.”
Objects don’t have to agree with subjects or verbs. Subjects and verbs have to agree. A plural subject must have a plural verb. Matching a plural subject with a singular object could make it seem that the object is shared when it is not. A multiple object could make it seem that each individual has more than one.
You’re generally better off sticking to a plural object in a sentence governed by a plural subject. If you write, “at preschool today, the girls made gifts for their fathers,” your reader is unlikely to think that each preschool girl has two dads. If you write, “at preschool today, the girls made gifts for their father,” readers might wonder if the sentence refers to siblings.
Changing to singular can be jarring, causing the reader to question your intent. But there are times that, to avoid confusion, you might want to emphasize the singularity of the object:
Visitors should bring raincoats.
Visitors should bring a raincoat.
All our tours include visits to the island.
All our tours include a visit to the island.
Rewriting is always an option. Most of these sentences could be made more clear by making the subject singular. Doing this, however, sometimes brings up that other vexing problem: the unknown third-person singular.
Travelers should be sure to keep their passports in a secure place.
Travelers should be sure to keep their passport in a secure place.
A traveler should be sure to keep his or her passport in a secure place.
“Their” often substitutes for “his or her” in that last sentence. I wish we could accept that and be done with it. But if people ask me to edit, I have to edit to conform to expectations. Using “their” for an individual brings scorn.