You’d think that nouns and pronouns would be easy, because we use them every day. But proper usage often trips people up.
Masculine, Feminine and Neutral Nouns
The “women’s liberation” movement has forced a change in certain nouns, many of them ending in -man (e.g., chairman). This usage sometimes works well and can be an appropriate change for equality, but sometimes it’s just clumsy and is done for effect rather than for effectiveness. For example, changing chairman to chairperson works well, even with the extra syllable, as do salesman to salesperson and spokesman to spokesperson. However, what happens to mailman? It becomes mailperson (awful) or mail carrier (better).
The idea of the change is to avoid having to refer to both genders separately (e.g., Policemen and policewoman should be respected). This might become: Police persons should be respected. Even more simply: The police should be respected. Or, All members of the police force should be respected.
Other clumsy examples include:
countryman – countryperson? / doorman – door person? / fireman – fireperson?
foreman – foreperson? / freshman – freshperson? / handyman – handyperson?
hangman – hangperson? / junkman – junkperson? / layman – layperson?
marksman – marksperson? / middleman – middleperson? / snowman – snowperson?
statesman – statesperson? / watchman – watchperson?
Even worse, can you imagine changing the sentence, Man your stations! to Person your stations! This would have to become something like Staff your stations!
Bottom line: Though the motivation to change gender-specific nouns is valid, the result is often more comical than practical. Since the language masters haven’t come up with a reasonable solution to this sensitive problem, this is one place where some common sense must be applied.
Masculine, Feminine and Neutral Pronouns
The same problem exists for pronouns like he, him and his. Solutions to this problem include constructions such as:
he and she, he or she, he/she, s/he
him and her, him or her, him/her
his and hers, his or hers, his/hers.
These are all clumsy, and repeated use tends to get on readers’ nerves. The problem is that the English language does not have a neuter or neutral pronoun to be used when the subject’s gender is unknown (and it’s not it). And this forces writers to create awkward pronoun constructions (e.g., One person spoke their mind. Each person should have their health checked annually.).
Without knowing the gender of the person in the first sentence, there may not be a “good” solution. It might be re-phrased as: One person spoke openly and candidly. The second sentence might be re-phrased as: Each person should have his or her health checked annually. Or People should have their health checked annually.
Note: The following, often-used solution for the second sentence is incorrect: Everyone should have their health checked annually. The problem is that every–one is a singular form, while their is a plural. Likewise, the sentence, “Each nation, culture and time period have their own tradition” should be: “Each nation, culture and time period has its own tradition.”
Groping for solutions like these can be tiring—and it can also become tiresome for readers. Furthermore, these constructions take the individual out of the written or spoken text, and it’s somehow de-humanizing.
Self-Centered and Incorrect Pronoun Use
One of the more grievous grammatical errors is shown in the following sentence: Me and my friends went to the movies. There are two things wrong with this sentence. 1) In earlier times, most people were taught that it was polite to refer to someone else first, not yourself (as the speaker). 2) The use of me instead of I is incorrect. The simple way to remember the rule for this is to use each of the pronouns connected by the word and as the subject of the verb—one at a time. Thus: My friends went to the movies and I went to the movies (not Me went to the movies). Putting this all together, the original sentence would correctly read: My friends and I went to the movies.
Another misused pronoun is myself. For example: John invited Sally and myself to go the movies. This makes the sentence sound more intellectual; unfortunately, it’s also wrong. Myself is most commonly used to amplify the original pronoun me or I. For example: I cut myself shaving (myself follows after I). So, the corrected version of the sentence would be: John invited Sally and me to go the movies.
Nouns as Adjectives
Here’s another problem sentence: For the past couple years… . This is a colloquialism. The word couple, without the preposition of, implies that it’s being used as a noun, meaning “two people or things” (e.g., A couple I met recently.). The corrected sentence is: For the past couple of years… .
Nouns as Verbs
This happens when someone puts the word to in front of a noun. In the following examples, each word started life as a noun, not a verb. The list could go on and on, and it seems to be getting longer.
- Defense is a noun, which means resistance or protection against attack. Incorrect usage example: They defensed against attack. This should be: They defended against attack.
- Transition has the root transit, meaning to go across, plus the suffix -ion, which is used in English to convert verbs into nouns. So, transition means movement, passage, or change from one position, state, stage, subject, concept, etc., to another. Incorrect usage example: They transitioned from one subject to another without pause. This should be: They moved from one subject to another without pause.
It’s one thing to use erroneous constructions in common speech, but be careful when you write. Avoid using nouns as verbs, unless you’re quoting someone (real or fictional).
Verbs as Nouns
In a new and startling reversal of the Nouns as Verbs problem, several US football announcers have presented this example: He broke contain (a verb). This should be: He broke containment (a noun).
It’s one thing to be casual when you’re speaking, but you need to be careful when you’re writing. Set your work aside for several days, or longer, then re-read it. You may have to reconstruct some phrases or sentences to “sound” better to your readers.
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