One rule of grammar is that pronouns must agree in number with their antecedents. A singular antecedent needs a singular pronoun. The boy tossed on his coat and ran out. A plural antecedent needs a plural pronoun. The boys tossed on their coats and ran out.
The problem usually comes with an indefinite pronoun. Although indefinite pronouns (everyone, nobody, anyone) are considered singular, we tend to use plural pronouns with them because we don’t want to use the gender specific pronouns. Everybody tossed on their coat and ran out. I think it would be better not to use “their” in that case, but some people argue that it’s acceptable.
But what about using a plural pronoun with a singular noun? Most people who care about antecedents and pronouns would say no. But I ran across an instance recently where the writer seems to have had a good reason for violating the pronoun agreement rule.
This was a teaser on a VH1 show called “100 Greatest One-Hit Wonders.” (Don’t ask me why I wasted part of my life on that one.)
The teaser writer didn’t want to give away the sex of the artist. So instead of using a singular pronoun “his” or “her,” the writer chose to use “their.” I guess this usage wasn’t going to stop anyone, and frankly, the teaser worked on me. (The answer is Jordy, a French boy who had a hit with “Dur Dur D’être Bébé” or “It’s Tough to be a Baby” in 1993.)
But, really, would it have killed the teaser writer to use a singular pronoun?!
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.