Saturday, April 30, 2016

Pronoun Problems

This is a quick sampling of misused pronouns I've encountered in the last 10 days. The sources are newspapers, well-educated professional persons and public releases from serious organizations.

I do not scour publications looking for these things.  They just pop out at me.  I also do not profess to be a skilled grammarian (and yes, I admit to having a typo problem.)

Most of what I know about this stuff I learned in grade school, effectively an eight-year frogmarch through spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, pronouns, prepositions, active and passive verbs and much else.   By sixth grade, I was pretty tired of going through the same material over and over again, but it did come in handy later.

Now I wonder whether what I was taught is becoming irrelevant.

Here are some examples of clashes between current usage and my earlier understanding of the English language.


        "He may be the only billionaire who I've ever had contact with."  (A quote from a 
        person with a law degree and 25 years of professional experience.)

                    Who is a nominative pronoun.  If we straighten the sentence a  bit,
                    it comes out like this: 
                    "He may be the only billionaire with who I've ever had contact."
                    See? The sentence needs an objective pronoun: whom.

       "They want constant validation that they are a higher-value customer," he said.  (A quote
       from the COO of a cruise company that offers elite accommodations to very rich people.)

                  They is a plural pronoun that should refer to plural higher-value customers.


        Caspersen, who's LinkedIn page also boasts ties to prominent private equity firm
        Coller Capital, later tried to obtain an additional $20 million investment from the
        same charitable foundation and a $50 million from a multinational private equity
        firm headquartered in NY.

               Who's is a contraction of the phrase who is.  The possessive wanted here is whose.


         The freshman dance major was recruited by the university two years ago after they
         saw her at a dance performance when she was in high school.

               The antecedent here, the university, is not a plural personal pronoun, i.e., they.  
               The university did not see the dance major at a high school performance.
               Better:  The university recruited the dance major after its faculty members
               were impressed by a high school performance of hers.


           I entered the hospital room late at night, thinking it would either be empty or if not,
           the patient would be asleep. They weren’t.  (The room had a single bed.)

                    Again, the antecedent is patient, singular, and the pronoun, they, is plural.
                    Better:  I entered the hospital room late at night, thinking its single bed
                    either would be empty or its patient asleep.  The patient was awake.


          It’s easy to underestimate the company on the basis of its relatively small scale in the
          market: their goal is to produce 80–90k units. . . .  If you think about it, the competition
          has already had 10 years to counter Tesla’s moves, yet they haven’t. What’s going on?

                    A company is not a plural noun; in second reference, the possessive its
                    is correct, but the next reference to their goal is a plural possessive.  Why?
                    The next sentence does it again:  The antecedent, competition, becomes they.


         Whole Foods has been under siege lately as supermarkets and big-box stores are
         dedicating more shelf space to organic food, and often doing it at lower prices. With 365,
         they hope to fight back and broaden that kind of customer they cater to.

                     Here we have three nouns: Whole Foods, supermarkets and big-box stores;
                     it is hard to tell which is the antecedent for "With  365, they hope to fight
                     back and broaden that kind of  customer base they cater to."  My guess is
                     that the plural they  refers to the only singular noun of the three.

                     The second sentence would be easier to decode if it went like this:
                     "With 365, Whole Foods hopes to fight back and broaden that kind of
                     customer it caters to."
                     (Also "broaden that kind of customer base they cater to" suggests something
                     humorous, most likely unintentionally.  Leave aside the business of ending
                     the sentence with a preposition.)


       Michael Kors has positioned themselves to have superior brand recognition through key 
       celebrity endorsements.
                      Michale Kors could be a reference to the designer or to his company.  Even
                      with the s on the end, either is singular.  Themselves is plural;  Himself  or
                       itself is what is needed.  Even better would be a simpler sentence.


        "There's a long history in business of picking a successor and then discrediting them."
         (Quote from a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.)

                         Simple problem:   Successor is singular; them is plural.


       We have contacted local law enforcement, informed them of the allegations, and are
        committed to assisting them in their investigation.  (Quote from a letter from a letter
       sent by an elite Northeastern prep school.)

                         Here we go again.  Law enforcement agencies is plural, but
                         law enforcement is singular.  Calling "law enforcement agencies"
                         them on second reference makes my teeth hurt; calling "law
                         enforcement" them is even worse.


         . . . the other passenger could have moved to an empty seat in another part of the plane
         but they refused.

                          Here we have one passenger in one seat, and in second reference, the
                          single passenger is they.  There are better ways to express this.


        When a celebrity emerges on the red carpet of the Met Gala, there is the distinct possibility
        that their carefully-crafted look might become a style staple for several decades to come.

                         Again, celebrity is singular, and their (as in "look") is plural.

                         (Plus, saying a celebrity "emerges on the red carpet" makes me think of an
                         insect emerging from a pupa.  And "carefully-crafted" doesn't need a hyphen.)


       Coach has been underperforming over the past five years, with their competitors greatly
        outperforming them.

       Coach is currently undervalued as it has lackluster revenue growth and increasing operating
       expenses once oil rebounds. Despite Coach trying to re-brand themselves and bring value to
       the shareholders, lack of revenue growth will continue to leave them underperforming
       compared to their competitors. Since Coach has been careless about improving their
       position, new competitors have started to emerge and will continue to take away market share
       from them.

                   First Coach, a singular entity, has their competitors beating them, then it has
                  lackluster growth and is trying to rebrand themselves, then has concerns about                                       them underperforming competitors and fearing that new competitors will take
                  market share from them.  Got it?  Me neither.

The Issue

I don't want to get too het up about this.  Our country has bigger problems than the misuse of pronouns.

Sloppy constructions like those above would undermine your reputation in a country that takes its language seriously.  Think France.

Even here, it can be difficult to take seriously the ideas that come from the mouths and keyboards of people who can't express themselves coherently.  In addition to the distraction, the mishmash mangles the message.

Pronouns are interesting for another reason: They are the face of the evolution of standard English.  Much of what I flagged above is on its way to being normalized.  In addition, some of our self-styled betters are preparing a whole new batch of pronouns to add to the ones that already give us so much trouble.

I will take up these two matters in the next week or so.

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