Mixing it up

This week’s quick tip comes from a problem we see creeping up too often in papers these days: mixing singular nouns or pronouns with plural nouns or pronouns (or vice versa).

For instance, can you spot the problems in the following sentences?

If they were wealthy, men would be given a small picture to get an idea of what his bride would look like.
Student paper
The wives were left to take care of the children in the absence of her husband, giving her limited time away from home.
Another student paper

These sentences I quote above are from two different papers, written by two different students.

Did you immediately spot the mixing of plurals with singulars? Upon closer inspection we realize that we have not matched up correctly our plural pronouns or nouns with other pronouns (or nouns) we used later in the same sentence.

There are some other issues with the sentences, but for now let’s focus on the following:

In the first sentence, we have they and men (a plural pronoun and a plural noun) so we need to make sure we do not switch to a singular pronoun when referring to these nouns again…his (bride) is a singular pronoun, so now we have a problem. Replace his with theirand we match up. Please note that you will have to make picture and bride plural, too. It is incorrect to say “…men would be given a small picture to get an idea of what their bride would look like,” unless more than one man is sharing a single bride. Not likely.

We would have made this sentence singular. It sounds better to say, “If a man was wealthy, he would be given a small picture to get an idea of what his bride would look like.” These little choices can make a big difference, and ideally it’s preferable to start the sentence off with the noun (man) than with the pronoun (they). We know right from the get-go whom we’re dealing with!

For the second example, we have the same issue rearing its head. We see wives but then we jump to the singular pronoun her, and use it twice in the same sentence. For this one, we would go ahead and stick with the plural forms, and substitute their and them for each her, in that order. Don’t forget to make husband plural, even though it is more plausible that multiple women might be sharing one.

If you enjoyed this week’s tip, please pass it on to your friends and neighbors.

Need something to write about? Check out What to Write About or tell us in the comment section what you’re working on this summer. Not writing this summer? Then check out Angela’s recent article: Keep Them Writing All Summer Long.