1. Clive Maguire
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    Clive Maguire New Member

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    Grammar everyone + their + noun

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Clive Maguire, Aug 12, 2014.

    Hi. I searched for this, but couldn't see any advice which dealt with the precise problem. I thought my grammar was reasonable, but then I wanted to put this on the cover of a book: "...everyone needs to watch their back." I stared at it long and hard and then changed it to "...everyone needs to watch their backs." Then I went for "...everyone needs to watch his back." Then I headed for the beer in the fridge. I think both the first one and the third one are correct, although I find the latter maybe a bit too correct. Any comments? Any way around it (it is a strapline, so it needs to sound snappy)? Thanks.
     
  2. Nilfiry
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    Nilfiry Contributing Member

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    "...their backs" and "his or her back" are both correct with the latter being more proper, but it is a mouthful to say.

    You would use the plural form of back for "their" because you are dealing with more than one.
     
    Last edited: Aug 12, 2014
  3. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Technically, "everyone" is singular ("Everyone needs to watch..."), but because of modern usage, it's become acceptable to use it as a plural noun in cases like the one you mention. So you could write it as "Everyone needs to watch their backs." Purists will cringe at that, but if you really care about that sort of thing, you could always rephrase the sentence.
     
  4. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    Cringing ...
     
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  5. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This is definitely cringeworthy. "Everyone needs to watch their backs" has to be wrong. "Everyone" is singular, and takes a singular verb ("needs"). But then you've given it a plural object - I envision one person who somehow has many backs.

    "Everyone needs to watch his back" is correct (or "Everyone needs to watch his or her back", which is clumsy but gender-neutral - damn you, English language!).
     
  6. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Go over the moon - You be needin to watch yor back. You need be watchin yor back. Yo, watch your back!
    Every he/she ( gender unspecified ) needs to watch his/hers ( gender unspecified ) back.
     
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  7. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Yes, but people use it all the time. Grammar is descriptive, not prescriptive. What can you do?
     
  8. Nilfiry
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    Nilfiry Contributing Member

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    I think the problem here is not, "everyone," but the use of the reflective form of singular "they" to represent a gender-unspecified antecedent. Apparently, usage of that word in that situation is already highly debatable, so it would seem that there is no right or wrong way to form the noun afterwards. The idea is to keep it consistent; however, it should be avoided when one can safely use a specific gender.
     
  9. Clive Maguire
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    Clive Maguire New Member

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    Wow. Thanks for the feedback everyone. I feel that "...everyone needs to watch their backs" doesn't sound right - like Minstrel, I think of multiple backs. In fact, on the basis that the construction could be downright misleading (e.g. "...everyone needs to watch their cars." - how many cars does each person have to watch?), I can hardly bring myself to consider it. On the other hand, I think in conversation it is exactly what I would say. "...their back." just begs for a little 's' to be added (go on- try saying it without!) and "...his back." could conceivably put off the female reader, and why would one want to shoot oneself in the foot like that? I'd like to avoid the issue altogether by thinking of another line, but I'm reluctant to abandon it completely because it fits the story so well. At any rate, it is nice to know I am not going mad and that there is no blindingly obvious solution. Cheers.
     
  10. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes.
     
  11. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    You can stay the course and, as a writer, set an example for these 'people'. I'm a grammar and spelling Nazi because the proper use of language is a matter of personal pride for me. It really isn't any more difficult to do these things right. It just requires a little more care.

    If I sit down in a nice restaurant and start shoveling my linguini into my mouth with both hands, it's all good, right ? After all, the food is getting to my stomach, which is the reason for eating.
     
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  12. Lae
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    Lae Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's "linguine"

    :crazy:
     
  13. Clive Maguire
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    Clive Maguire New Member

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    I used to be a grammar and spelling Nazi, but I am now (much) older and - arguably - wiser. Quite apart from the dangers of shooting yourself in the foot (linguini, ‘people’) - which eventually made me realise that none of us are perfect and few of us have the luxury of spending all our time trying to become perfect - language is constantly evolving and what was correct/acceptable a few years ago is not necessarily correct/acceptable today.

    On the other hand grammar is, I believe, both descriptive AND prescriptive - isn’t that the point of it? In any case, ‘what can you do?’ is no argument for abandoning the pursuit of excellence.

    My own conclusion is that language mirrors human development, and for me is therefore always full of compromise. I have abandoned my earlier extremism in favour of the pursuit of enlightened co-existence. An impossible goal, perhaps, but no more so than the global imposition of a single ‘correct’ model. A lot less stressful, too. :)

    With apologies for any offence.
     
  14. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    If you think about it, there's really no such thing as a proper way to use language. As Grammar Girl puts it, "when we use the phrase 'proper English,' we're playing into a whole mess of stereotypes and misconceptions about language."
     
  15. Clive Maguire
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    Clive Maguire New Member

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    Hmm. I'm not so sure. I tend to view language as a means to an end: the language is acceptable if the communication is successful. The 'proper' way could then be said to be that which delivers success in the best/fastest/most economical/most efficient/most effective way (delete/add depending on your priorities).
     
  16. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    lin·gui·ne
    [ling-gwee-nee] Show IPA
    noun Italian Cookery.
    a type of pasta in long, slender, flat strips.
    Also, lin·gui·ni.

    Thanks for trying to embarrass me, though. I'm not sure what's wrong with 'people'.
     
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  17. Clive Maguire
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    Clive Maguire New Member

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    Apologies. It's my extreme anti-extremism. I will mend my ways. Regarding 'people', from a quick glance the inverted commas indicated to me that the word should be taken as meaning something other than its usual meaning (which I think would be questionable usage in this context). If you were just using it as a direct quote, then - other than arguing the toss over single vs double quotes - I withdraw my peremptory suggestion unreservedly. Or if you prefer - sorry mate.
     
  18. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    Actually, my 'gratitude' was aimed at @Lae. I guess I did mean to put 'people' (there I go again) in inverted commas to indicate a different meaning, in a way. I meant something like 'these 'people' you referred to'. It probably should have been quotation marks, though. I think I'll stop before the quote key breaks.

    At any rate, my comments above weren't meant to criticize anyone (including me) for honest mistakes. It's the deliberate dismissal of the rules of grammar by those who fancy themselves writers that concerns me, especially when the excuse is 'common usage'.

    Maybe the point is that if I start reading your three-years-in-the-making novel and find "Everyone needs to watch their backs." on page two (unless it's in appropriate dialogue or done for narrative effect) I'm going to close the book and send it back to Amazon for a refund, reasonably assuming that your talent as a storyteller won't be any better than your ability/willingness to use the language properly. (The you in this paragraph refers to some general you, not, you know, you.)
     
  19. Clive Maguire
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    Clive Maguire New Member

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    And quite right too. However, the frustrating thing is that we can also be certain there will be some who, seeing "...watch their back." or even "...watch his back.", will likewise close the book, genuinely believing or feeling the grammar to be wrong. Now, you could dismiss it by arguing that you care not for these poor misguided folk, but that would be both a loss of sales and a lost opportunity for bringing them back to the fold. For the moment, I'm going with "..watch their back.", but I can see that in the end I'm just going to have to come up with a better strapline and avoid the polemics altogether. I guess that brings me back to my conclusions regarding language as communication.
     
  20. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I can agree with the first sentence but not the second. Terms like "fastest" or "most economical" shouldn't apply because I don't think many people think about these things when speaking. You may be thinking in terms of writing, which affords us the luxury of being able to go back and edit our thoughts.

    Based on your first sentence then, you should have no problem with what you consider to be incorrect grammar. There are several dialects of English that you and I would have trouble understanding because of the unconventional use of language. But just because we don't understand it completely doesn't mean others don't. What then gives us the right to say that the way language is being used here is incorrect or improper? By claiming that there's a proper way of using language, you're effectively saying that certain dialects and/or groups of people aren't as important simply because they use language/grammar differently than you do. That, to me, is the epitome of arrogance.

    On a related note, I think there's a strong connection between language and social class, but I won't get into that here. Perhaps someone could use this idea for their PhD topic. ;)
     
  21. daemon
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    daemon Contributing Member Contributor

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    This attitude is exemplary of an intellectually bankrupt way of reading -- the way a person reads who is so oblivious to the message that he has no thoughts to form into a critique that matters, but he still wants to critique something, so he settles for picking apart grammar, and he passes his thoughts off as a legitimate judgement of the book's quality.
     
  22. Lae
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    Lae Contributing Member Contributor

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    It wasn't meant to embarrass you, it was a light-hearted jab. Don't take life, grammar and this forum so seriously.

    Hell I had to Google it to find out what it was!
     
  23. Storysmith
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    "...everyone needs to watch their backs." is wrong, as others have pointed out, because everyone is singular, and so only has one back to watch.

    Your other options all boil down to how to refer to a person of unknown sex. Here are some choices:

    "he of she". This can be convoluted, so I wouldn't recommend it. Any writer who does use it is likely to find him- or herself gnashing his or her teeth as he or she rereads his or her writing.

    "s/he or (s)he". This is ugly, and may be OK on formal documents, but doesn't read well to me. In fact, how do you read that aloud?

    Avoiding those words entirely by rewriting sentences. I'm not in favour of this, as I prefer to choose my wording to give maximum impact, not to avoid making grammar decisions.

    "he" or "she" (either one, not the phrase "he or she"). This can be seen as sexist (with either word). It can also lead to some strange sentences, such as this one I found: "The average American needs the small routines of getting ready for work. As he shaves or blow-dries his hair or pulls on his panty-hose, he is easing himself by small stages into the demands of the day."

    "they". This is the "singular they", and Wikipedia has a whole page on it here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they. Some grammarians from the nineteenth century onwards have advised against it, because of the singular/plural mismatch. It pre-dates that, and has been used by many respected authors, including Shakespeare.

    There also appears to be a split between America and the rest of the English-speaking world, with Americans authorities preferring "he" or "he or she", whereas others prefer "they". Personally, I would go for "they" every time, but then I am a Brit.

    This is definitely one of those cases where you can't please all of the people all of the time, so I suggest going with what you're most comfortable. Unfortunately, these things can annoy people who have been brought up to use a different approach. There simply isn't a single right approach.
     
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  24. Clive Maguire
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    Clive Maguire New Member

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    In this case, I'm afraid my use of language has been unsuccessful. All I'm saying is that IF you accept that language can be thought of in terms of (un)successful communication, THEN the term 'proper' could be defined in any number of ways. The words and phrases I gave were simply examples. I claim nothing beyond my belief that communication is (at least) one of the defining purposes of language.

    I most certainly am, yes.

    Going back to my original strapline, it is clear that no matter how it is phrased, it is controversial to someone (it really doesn't matter on what basis, nor whether it is technically justified or not). To me, that means I need to find a better strapline, since this one is unlikely to be as successful in terms of communication as I would like.
     
  25. Clive Maguire
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    Clive Maguire New Member

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    Yep - I think that's what it boils down to, so I'm falling back and attacking on foot. I understand and respect your principled approach, but principles have never got me anywhere, so I'm going unashamedly for sales. :)
     

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