Lazy Afternoon Reruns: “They: An Evolutionary Tale”

During fourteen years of teaching, I’ve spent a lot of time marking the improper use of pronouns. The way that some high school students, especially younger ones, switch pronouns so fervently has driven me nearly mad. In just one paragraph, I might get something like this:

I think that teenagers shouldn’t have curfews. You know when you need to be home your parents don’t. If a teenager wants to be out late, they should be able to.

No, no, no, I reply with my red pen. The first sentence utilizes first-person voice – the writer’s voice – but begins with the flabby phrase, “I think that.” The second sentence – a run-on that’s actually two sentences and needs punctuation – changes to second-person, which should be used to speak directly to the reader, but in this case, isn’t. The sentence instead utilizes a non-voice that speaks both for the writer and for the subject of the paragraph. Finally, the third sentence shifts once again, this time to third-person, while committing an agreement error between “a teenager” singular and “they,” which is plural.

The grammarian in me cringes at the weak, inefficient, and inexact writing that is caused by pronoun errors. I’m not some schoolmarmish stickler for rules and regulations, not in the slightest, but this kind of writing I equate to a quarterback throwing the football ten feet over an open receiver’s head: we can tell who he was throwing to, but he didn’t have the remotest chance to connect and accomplish anything.

Grammar is a system, like a city’s transit system. No matter how badly you want the Main Street bus to pick you up on Third Avenue, it probably won’t. I know about the attitude that grammar is a mass of useless, erudite restrictions created to confuse otherwise competent speakers and writers, but that dim view overlooks the societal need for agreed-upon transactional standards: in traffic, in law— and in language.

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