Any self-respecting grammar snob should cringe when their eyes land on a sentence like this one.
Do you see the problem? (Hint: The subject of the sentence is singular.)
If you stumble over the word "their" because it is a plural pronoun, you are probably 1) a grammar snob 2) over 40 or 3) both. Join the club.
We are a dying breed. One minute, we are shaking our collective heads and tsk-tsking when folks who should know better are committing some grammatical sin. The next minute, the joke is on us.
I just had one of those moments courtesy of Facebook. A journalist friend passed along an essay in The New Republic, written by The Grumpy Grammarian, aka linguistics professor John McWhorter.
According to the Grumpy Grammarian, my opening sentence is both natural and grammatically acceptable. His sample sentence is:
"Each student was talking about how hard their homework was."
McWhorter suggests that the insistence on noun-pronoun agreement in this sort of sentence is based on a misunderstanding. Some arcane rule by a stuffy grammarian in the past. This sort of construction, he says, has always been part of common English usage. He makes the additional argument that it is the best way around the contempory concern with gender neutrality.
I have to disagree. His sentence (and my own opener) will never feel natural to me. And there are ways around the problem of gender neutrality.
Consider the alternatives, with my own sentence as an example.
A. "Any self-respecting grammar snob should cringe when his eyes land on this sentence."
It is grammatically correct, but it does suggest that only men are grammar snobs. (Obviously untrue!)
B. "Any self-respecting grammar snob should cringe when his/her eyes land on this sentence."
It is grammatically correct and gender neutral. And cumbersome.
C. "Any self-respecting grammar snob should cringe when their eyes land on this sentence."
The preferred choice of The Grumpy Grammarian. Gender neutral. Gaining ground. You hear it all the time. But you also hear and read grammar violations like this: "Bill was talking to Mary and I" or (even worse) "...to I and Mary." Does mean we should abandon our standards?
D. "Self-respecting grammar snobs should cringe when their eyes land on this sentence."
That's the choice of this proud Grammar Snob. Just make the subject plural and use "their" as much as you please.
Now, was that so hard?
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders