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The Team Sat in Its Hotel Drinking Its Beers

Lucky BarWhen Business Insider recently published a listicle entitled “21 common grammar mistakes and how to avoid them,” naturally the old chestnut about its being an error to use they (or their or them) “as a singular pronoun” was included.

It repeats a familiar mistake by saying “as a singular pronoun.” Nobody uses they as a singular pronoun. The word is grammatically plural, as you can see from the form of a present-tense verb that has they as subject: You get They are responsible (as with Women are responsible), never *They is responsible (compare *Women is responsible). So it’s indisputably plural.

The intent was to proscribe they in contexts where it has a singular antecedent. A very different matter. We are being exhorted, in other words, to accept the familiar prejudice against sentences like No one ever thinks they are personally responsible. The prejudice is unfounded: Such sentences are fully natural and acceptable, and have a very long history of use in fine literature. Calling them “incorrect” is delusional.

But, groping for an additional reason (ignoring five or six centuries of literature) we should eschew they with all singular antecedents, item 14 in the listicle tells us firmly: “You wouldn’t want to say, ‘The team arrived really late at their hotel.’ Instead you could say, “The team arrived really late at its hotel.”

Oh, what a good idea! Let’s all write that way: The team arrived really late at its hotel, but it was thirsty, so after getting its room keys it ordered a few beers and sat around in the big lobby armchairs recovering from its long bus ride. It checked its email messages. Later it started chatting up some women in the bar area. Some of the women agreed to go up to its room with it.

Be serious! Of course it isn’t an error of grammar to let they refer back to a singular noun phrase denoting an entity composed of jointly functioning individuals. Not even in American English (British English being distinctly more inclined to such usage): Consider The Republican majority in the House of Representatives failed to pass the health-care bill they had been promising for years. That may be a political error but it is not a grammar error.

It also isn’t a mistake to use they with a quantifier antecedent, as in the other example that the listicle condemns: Everybody raise their hand. (What’s the alternative? Everybody raise his hand or her hand as the case may be ?)

There are hundreds and hundreds of these useless grammar articles out there, possibly thousands, all plagiarized from each other down the years. Why are they so popular, even in magazines and websites oriented toward business? You’d think that business people might be more critical of 200-year-old myths; that out of respect for due diligence they would seek some sort of evidence for implausible claims made about their native language; that they would want to think outside the box rather than go along with ancient prejudices.

But no, the Business Insider feature purveys fantasy. It insists that since can only have a temporal meaning, hence “It’s incorrect to say, ‘He went home since the play was over.’” This is absurdly easy to falsify: I checked the files of Wall Street Journal articles for 1987 from the top to see how soon I could find counterexamples, and they began with the fourth occurrence:

The only disadvantage for the employer, apart from the illegality, is quality control, since homework makes supervision and investment in sophisticated machinery impossible.

and the fifth:

The summit was a failure, since it was dominated by representatives of the many interests that stood to lose in the short term from any major shift to indirect taxation.

Why would a level-headed person in business rate unsupported grammar-guidance pontifications above the concrete evidence of professionally crafted Wall Street Journal prose?

The listicle is so out of touch that it deprecates even preposition stranding, asserting that the phrase company policy, which we had to abide by “sounds awful.” No one who had a reasonable acquaintance with the history of English over the past 700 years would think it sounds awful. In fact if you compare Who did you lend it to? with the unbearably pompous To whom did you lend it?, you’ll notice that things are the other way round: The latter sounds like bad scriptwriting from Downton Abbey.

I weep at the thought of intelligent native speakers of English being bludgeoned into believing that this sort of grammatical misinformation will help them succeed in business.

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