Everyone Get Their Red Pen – This Is a Big One!

It’s easy to get frustrated with the complexities of the English language, especially when it becomes clear that many native speakers still struggle with certain words and phrases. How is a non-native speaker supposed to handle herself with the language when the supposed experts can’t? So native and non-native English speakers alike - be aware of this (very) common usage problems:

“Their” means MORE than one.

It’s fun to spot the misuse of “their” in articles, websites and posts of very respectable writers – I’ve even caught myself on this one once or twice, and there’s no telling how many mistakes slipped by unnoticed into my work. Here’s the problem:

Everyone should grab their pens and get busy.

Let me repeat:

EveryONE should grab their pens and get busy.

One person is not “their”. “Their” is plural pronoun referring to more than one. “Every” is singular. “Everybody” doesn’t work here either because “everybody” also means each individual body present, or just one. What you need is a singular subject if you’re so desperate to use “their.”

Not Correct:
Everybody should grab their pen and get busy.

Not Correct:
Every writer should grab their pen and get busy.

Correct!
All writers should grab their pens and get busy.

Correct!
Everyone should grab his or her pen and get busy.

Still Correct!
Everyone should grab her pen and get busy.

Do we make this error when we speak? Sure. In casual English you toss off “their” right and left and nobody blinks an eye. Does that mean it’s okay? Probably not. Personally I prefer to sound like I actually know a semblance of the language I teach during the day light hours, so I do my best to avoid usage errors like that one. But hey – nobody’s perfect when working on their English. Oh wait! There it is again – it’s like I slipped that one in on purpose!

Here are a few more common errors that get the best of us at times:

Accept/Except:
I accept your apologies. I’ll accept all apologies except his.

Affect/Effect:

Bright lights really affect my vision. I love the effect of the purple light on the white wall.

Capital/Capitol:

I plan to invest all of my capital. While in Washington D.C., I plan to visit the Capitol building.

Elicit/Illicit:
I can’t believe all of this illicit drug trafficking. The crime certainly elicits a response from me.

Principle/Principal
It’s important to be principled when dealing with investments. The principal ran the school with strict discipline.

Your/You’re

You look like you’re tired today. Maybe you should rest in your bed.

Is English tricky? Absolutely. But the more you use and read it correctly, the easier these annoying elements will be to use in your work and conversation.

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Rebecca is a full-time everything. She teaches English and reading to her much loved, if challenging, high school students during the day and is a freelance education writer in the evenings. With almost ten years in the classroom and advanced degrees in business and information science, Rebecca specializes in materials that inform, educate and entertain. Rebecca indulges herself by pretending to have spare time and writing about the ups and downs of being a freelancing mama whenever she gets a chance.

11 thoughts on “Everyone Get Their Red Pen – This Is a Big One!”

  1. I have always – since elementary school – been confused about “their”, “his or her”, “all”, “one.” This is definitely something I need to get better at (at which I need to get better).

    Reply
  2. Sorry, Rebecca, but I have to disagree with you on the first point (you just knew people were going to jump on this one, didn’t you?!).

    The frowning on the use of ‘their’ with singular nouns seems to be a US thing – it seems that most of the style guides ruling against it are from America.
    In other countries, the use of ‘their’ for entities that are grammatically singular is regarded as perfectly OK, and is done in the interests of gender-inclusive language.

    For example, the Australian Government’s Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers (2002) recommends using ‘Everyone must pay their taxes’.

    Yes, you can use ‘his or her’ instead of ‘their’, as in your example: ‘Everyone should grab his or her pen’ but to my eyes ‘his or her’ just looks fussy. I wouldn’t say it in speech and I wouldn’t write it either.

    Of course, those who use horrible constructions such as ‘s/he’ are not really human and can be safely ignored here!

    Reply
    • In Rebecca’s defense, she does teach English in an American school and this is a US-based blog, so we’d clearly slant that way.

      That said, I’m with you. I will not use “his or her” if I can help it and it would be completely inappropriate in most of the conversational, casual writing I do — technically correct or not. I also refuse to use sexist variations of either slant most of the time. It’s dated at best and half-inaccurate at worst. But as a reader I find it downright annoying.

      And the international issue is definitely something readers need to consider given the way business can be done internationally so easily these days. I actually have very few regulars in the U.S. — Australia, Pakistan, the UK, etc. So standards here would apply even less to the majority of clients I work with than they do in my own casual-tone blogs.

      Reply
      • Honestly – I believe his/her/he/she/us/their is going to go the way of the comma for all but the most formal writing. Commas are no longer “required” in certain places and the word their will probably become formalized in US writing over time. We could say the same for properly used adverbs.

        With that being said, I think we can just chalk this one up to one more difference between formal and casual writing – perhaps a cross over in different countries.

        I do think it’s important to understand the difference, however, as formal writing needs a bit of extra care on details like this to pass muster in certain settings or niches.

        Perhaps we just need a disclaimer about use in different countries and different styles of work.

        And yes – I picked one with an edge on purpose. LOL

        Reply
    • I tend to avoid the problem all together when I can. In my world, “Everyone pick up his or her pen,” simple becomes, “Pick up the pen” or “pick up your pen.” Nicely encapsulating everyone without discrimination and cuts down on extra words, too.

      If I happen to be in class that day and feeling Texan, I might even say, “Y’all pick up your pens!” while in my mind thinking, “Pick up the damn pen before I have to say it again!”

      Reply
  3. Affect/Effect was my Dad’s pet peeve. 🙂

    The one that I see everywhere these days is Lose/Loose.

    No, I don’t want to Loose Weight – I’d rather keep that skin tight. 🙂

    Reply
  4. I think its/it’s is the error I see most often on blogs…but thanks for giving me 9th grade English flashbacks with this list!

    I had an amazing high school English teacher who cured us of all of these problems forever.

    The other common problem is indefinite reference…which I was cured of with a hilarious handout from that teacher with such prizes as “Running down the hall, my jacket caught on a locker” and “Creamed and boiled I like my onions.”

    Another one that’s kind of my new pet peeve is people who don’t know how to use slang expressions — but use them anyway. For instance, I had one commenter on my blog a while back say what she was getting paid “wasn’t chunk change.” I’m betting she actually will continue getting paid CHUMP change until she stops using phrases she doesn’t understand.

    Writers who’re looking to move up would do well to spend a little time on these grammar basics…it’s amazing how many people make errors with them. And we should all proof — I find when I’m really tired, I start using there/their wrong… 🙂

    Reply
  5. The singular they is only a grammatical error in two circumstances:

    1) If you believe English should be followed by the rules of mathematics above all else.

    2) If your client says it is.

    Aside from that, it’s not an issue of right vs wrong, it’s an issue of which is the most acceptable wrong. English simply doesn’t have a gender-neutral or gender-unknown singular pronoun. Every possible solution, be it “he/she”, alternating, always “he”, “s/he” or the singular they has a drawback.

    * He/she or s/he is ugly and distracting.
    * Alternating leads to confusion.
    * Always using he is sexist.
    * “They” upsets people who want the mathematics to add up.

    For me, the last of these is the most minor drawback. But I refer you again to circumstance #2 😉

    Reply
  6. Ms Garland, I believe this usage is an English native speaker problem , being used in speaking and writing interchangeably! The new learner of any language is always right when it comes to the writing skill sticking to the rules as taught.

    I am sure struggling with some words and phrases is not limited to English language , it is found in other languages one way or the other.

    I just want to draw your attention to “herself” in your opening statement (shown below), Is the non-native speaker always a female ?

    “How is a non-native speaker supposed to handle herself with the language when the supposed experts can’t? So native and non-native English speakers alike – be aware of this (very) common usage problems”

    With my due respect.

    Reply
    • I’ve very rarely seen new learners who are “always right” in their language usage, the most common problem being that they don’t know when formal language is and isn’t appropriate in writing. It is not always correct. Context is extremely important, but sadly instruction seems to focus on formality. It makes it fairly obvious when a non-native English speaker is writing. And if readers can tell that by the writing style, there is still a lot of work to be done. There’s nothing wrong with knowing how to write using formal English techniques. But to say it’s “always right” because people stick to what they’re taught is dead wrong.

      I believe others have already covered the “herself” issue in the comments. The simple truth is that old school rules (like defaulting to masculine forms of words, never starting sentences with conjunctions, etc.) no longer apply. That’s a problem when learning a language from people stuck on old rules that aren’t commonly followed anymore. Languages grow and change over time.

      It’s perfectly acceptable nowadays to say “herself” or “himself” when talking about a hypothetical person. You do not have to account for both sexes in everything you say by using plurals or himself / herself together. That’s clunky language at best and a great example of an old school rule that only the grammar police follow anymore (and nobody likes the grammar police).

      Speak to your audience. When learning a language, that’s the most important thing to keep in mind (in my opinion at least). If you can’t tailor your language to the audience you’re speaking to, you aren’t truly fluent in the language. Fluency is as much about smoothly flowing words as correct grammar. I will, however, give you that there’s a grammatical error in the sentence — either “this” should be “these” or “problems” should be “problem.”

      Reply

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