“After the fight, all the boys had a black eye.”
Editors see sentences like this all the time. They’re painful. They remind us that, no matter how much we know about grammar and sentence structure, our powers are limited.
The problem, of course, is that the boys don’t share one eye. So, it doesn’t make sense in the singular. But if you made it plural, eyes, it would sound as though each had both eyes blackened.
You probably already see a way out of this. Just recast the sentence: Every boy had a black eye. That’s a great solution, when possible.
But not every sentence can be recast. So what to do when you have no choice but to make the subject “all the boys”?
Don’t answer that yet, because I have more examples of sentences with agreement problems that put writers and editors in a bind.
“From carrot sticks to apple slices, healthy snacks give your child a boost of energy and a positive outlook — two things they will benefit from greatly as they go through their day.”
In this sentence, “they” and “their” are the issue. Theoretically, a singular “child” shouldn’t be referred to with “they” and “their.”
We’ve talked before about these “plural” pronouns representing singular subjects. In short, it’s fine (more on that in a minute). But today I’m talking about a problem that goes well beyond debates about singular “they.”
Take this example, which, like the one above, is a thinly veiled passage from my editing work.
“We’re working with families and looking at matters from their perspective.”
How can multiple families have a single perspective?
And here’s another.
“If your dog is showing signs of aging, there are things you can do maintain their youthful vitality — like socializing them with other dogs, asking your vet to check their teeth, playing fetch to keep them sharp and making sure they are eating a nutrient-rich diet.”
Isn’t it a little weird to refer to a singular dog with “their” and “them,” but then switch back to the singular when you reference just one “diet”?
One more: “Employees like Mary Jones in Orlando and Bob Lucas in Chicago serve as a guiding light in their respective communities.”
Does it make sense to think of Mary, Bob and many other employees as a single guiding light? Wouldn’t their metaphorical lights shine separately?
For all of these agreement issues, there’s no right answer. And not only is there no right answer, there’s no good answer, either.
I have paid a lot of attention over the years and, in that time, learned that logical precision often is not the best choice. You end up leaving the reader wondering whether every boy has both eyes blackened. Or you end up with jarring statements like “their guiding lights” or “families’ perspectives.”
For all of these, I would throw logic and mathematical precision out the window and just use singulars like “light” and “perspective” and “eye.”
The pronouns “they,” “them” and “their” make for easier choices because, while they’re primarily plural, dictionaries and style guides support using them to refer to a singular person (or dog) if you don’t know that person’s sex.
That’s especially true in cases where “he or she,” “him or her” and “his and hers” could get repetitive fast. So instead of “Every child in the room knew he or she could leave his or her backpack in whichever cubby he or she had claimed as his or hers,” you just use “they” and its cousins instead.
In other words, “All the night shift workers at the meeting raised their hand” is illogical, but it’s better than the image you get when you say, “They all raised their hands.”