One of the most common mistakes I see is when a pronoun does not agree with the noun for which it is being substituted. This problem frequently appears when writers use the pronoun “their” when they should be using “its.” (Bloggers make this error a lot).
Here’s a primer on proper pronoun use:
If you’re referring to a singular entity that isn’t a person, use “its,” not “their:”
- Right: Starbucks is having its worst quarter ever.
- Wrong: Starbucks is having their worst quarter ever.
- Rationale: Starbucks is a company and, hence, a singular entity. So the pronoun standing in its place must be singular (“its”), not plural (“their”).
If you’re referring to plural entities, person or not, use “their.”
- Right: The administration and Congress are confused about their priorities.
- Wrong: The administration and Congress are confused about its priorities.
- Rationale: The administration and Congress are two separate entities. Hence a plural pronoun is used.
If the noun is singular, but you are unsure about its gender, use both genders of the singular pronoun—do not use “their.”
- Right: Everyone loves his or her iPhone.
- Wrong: Everyone loves their iPhone.
- Rationale: Everyone is singular. If that concept seems strange, keep in mind that the word ends with “one.” Hence the pronoun that represents “everyone” must be singular. “Their” is always plural; it cannot be used to substitute for a singular pronoun just because you are referring to both genders.
If a noun refers to people of a specific gender, have the pronoun reflect that information. Do not use “his or her” just to be politically correct.
- Right: My boss skipped my presentation on grammar so she could eat her lunch.
- Wrong: My boss skipped my presentation on grammar so he or she could eat his or her lunch.
- Rationale: At its most basic level, the purpose of writing is to share information. So if you know your boss’s gender (and hopefully you do), use the appropriate pronoun. I’ve seen many writers use “his or her” when the gender of the person to whom they are referring should be obvious. Being politically correct is fine. but not at the expense of being right. (And if my adding an “s” after the apostrophe in “boss’s” confuses you, check out my post about the plural, possessive, and the plural possessive).