“In the building of artificial structures, the engineer has a prime concern: the character of the materials available for their use.”

You will probably deduce upon hearing that this sentence is from Mabel Todd (The Thinking Body author we met in August’s posts) we will be talking about the importance of knowing what is inside our body. But believe it or not, that is not our focus  today.

When you read her sentence, did it flow? I thought so. But if we carefully look at the sentence and see the singular word engineer is paired with the plural word their, isn’t that is an error? Aren’t nouns and verbs supposed to match?

The singular “they” or “their” or “them” is the result of language changes. In order to get away from “he” as meaning everyone, this change has happened. 

Can you tell that I’m reading books about writing?* I’d love if you see examples of this new phenomenon that you let me know! Mabel will preach posture; I will be grandma grammarian. 

Thanks for exploring the mystery – Nicky Mendenhall

IMAGE: This is a singular glove. Remember to make sure you have both of your gloves as where I live, it is getting time for them. In fact, I’ve already worn my pair once.

*Ensouling Language:On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life by Stephen Harrod Buhner is an amazing book that I’ve read slowly over several years.


6 Responses

  1. The old veteran English teacher still favors making the antecedent plural (as follows) "In the building of artificial structures, engineers have a prime concern: the character of the materials available for their use."

  2. Kathi!
    I love the word antecedent! Haven't thought of that for years.

    Your sentence does make the sentence feel more normal! But why be normal? Oh I'm just teasing you – normal is good!

    And what is good is hearing from you! Thanks for reading and commenting. I appreciate it!

  3. HI Nicky!
    As an SAT/ACT English tutor, the singular "they" used to sound like nails on a chalkboard. And then I started meeting some gender fluid and transgender people who feel so much more comfortable using "they" as their pronoun. Grammar suddenly took a back seat to respect for another person.

  4. Diane – thanks for your insight into the singular they. Much appreciated. You also point out how it takes time for a change to not feel like nails on the chalkboard. It certainly does and then we wonder what the big deal was!


  5. Hi Nicky,

    I used to use they/their as singular, gender-neutral pronouns when I edited for J. Am. Chem. Soc. when communicating Reviewer comments to Authors (of paper submissions) so as to protect identity of Reviewers. The utility definitely outweighed the initial awkwardness. I've also seen a dramatic rise of they/their used in news/journalism in referencing non-binary people — I'm (almost) to the point where I don't pause in momentary confusion.

  6. Thanks Anna for the message. I hadn't thought of the singular they as a way to protect the identity of a reviewer.

    Glad to know that you are past being discombobulated by the singular they in most references. I will watch more carefully and hopefully will catch up soon.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

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