Nouns and Pronouns

Nouns-pronounsYou’d think that nouns and pronouns would be easy because we use them every day. But proper word 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 (eg, chairman). This 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 seems to work well, as do salesman to salesperson and spokesman to spokesperson, even with the extra syllable. However, what happens to mailman? It becomes mailperson (awful) or mail carrier (better, but longer).

The idea of the changes is to avoid having to refer to both genders (eg, the sentence, Policemen and policewoman should be respected, would become, Police persons should be respected, or more simply, The police 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 genderized 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 common sense (such as it is) 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 the reader’s or listener’s nerves. One solution is to replace the singular pronoun with its plural equivalent (eg, they, them, theirs). However, this often sets up a situation where a singular noun gets reflected by a plural pronoun (eg, Each person should have their health checked annually). This mixing of singular and plural is clearly incorrect grammar. Another solution is to change all words to plurals (eg, All people should have their health checked annually). Note: The following, often used solution, is incorrect: Everyone should have their health checked annually. The pronoun is every one, a singular form. The problem here is that these solutions, too, can become tiresome; and this construction takes all individuals out of the written or spoken text—it’s somehow de-humanizing.

The best solution we’ve found is to use plural forms as much, and as least clumsily, as possible, and when forced to use the singular forms, use he and she, he or she, him and her, him or her, and his and hers, his or hers.

Neuter PRONOUN: Singular versus Plural

We recently heard a sentence that’s roughly paraphrased as: Each nation, culture and time period have their own tradition, which demonstrates several problems. The word their is incorrect; the pronoun does not refer to the items in the list, but to the word each, which is, in fact, singular and the actual subject of the verb. The corrected sentence should read: Each nation, culture and time period has its own tradition.

NOUNS as Adjectives

We recently read this phrase: 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 (eg, A couple I met recently…). The corrected sentence is: For the past couple of years… .

NOUNS as Verbs

This happens when someone, in writing or speech, puts the word to in front of a noun. Here are some examples: to author, to defense (something), to reference (something), to target (eg, a goal), to transition.  The list could go on and on.

Each of these word started life as a noun, not a verb. Author means one who augmented or added, which later became used to mean a writer or originator; so to author would mean to write or to originate. Defense means resistance against attack, protection, or something that defends; so to defense would mean to defend. Reference has the verb refer as the root, but -ence is a noun-creating suffix; so to reference would mean to refer to. Target is a small shield; so to target would mean to aim at. Transition has the root transit, meaning to go across, plus the suffix –ion, which is used in English to from verbs; so to transition would mean change or to make a transition.

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, we now have an example from several US football announcers: He broke contain (a verb), which should be He broke containment (a noun).

Self-Centered and Incorrect PRONOUN Use

One of the more grievous errors is shown in the following sentence: Me and my friends went to the movies. There are two things wrong with this sentence. The first is that, in earlier times, most people were taught that it was more polite to refer to someone else first, not yourself (as the speaker). The second error is the use of me instead of I. 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.

Singular versus Plural PRONOUN

One of the sad parts of the “women’s liberation” movement has been the use of their rather than his or her (eg, That person put their hat on backwards, instead of the correct That person put his (or her) hat on backwards). Their is a plural pronoun (eg, Their toys were broken), not a singular pronoun, and should not be used that way. Prior to women’s lib, if a pronoun could not be specifically tied to a male or female noun, it’s likely that his would have been used. The word her or hers was used when a woman was referred to specifically, as in She put her hat on backwards. However, 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), resulting in the totally incorrect, but apparently (sadly) necessary form That person put their hat on backwards. The solution is to somehow write (or speak) the thought in a way that does not compromise good English (That person put the hat on backwards).

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