Look it up

A reader pointed out that in an earlier post “You could look it up,” I had made a mistake in this sentence: I recommend that everyone have a hardcover dictionary for their home office or student desk.

I referred to “everyone,” which is singular, but used a plural pronoun, “their.” I should have used either a plural word, such as “folks,” (which is what I have changed it to, by the way), or a singular pronoun, “his.” Because we shy away from using masculine pronouns only, we might use “his or her.” Or we can recast the sentence and avoid the wordiness. (Some lenient usage guides allow the use of plural pronouns to refer to “everyone.” Here is a Web site devoted to the topic. Also, see the “Agreement: indefinite pronouns” entry in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Warning to purists: This is a fairly loosey-goosey usage guide.) I agree with the reader, and the e-mail message gave me a chance to correct my usage.

You might also wonder if I erred in using what seems to be a plural verb, “have,” but “have” is correct because the verb needs to be in the subjunctive mood. I turned to some of my grammar books to check this. In a clause that follows a construction such as “I recommend” or “I advise,” use the subjunctive mood. The verb is the ordinary present tense except we do not add -s for the third person singular. Here is a Web site about the subjunctive.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.