Friday, May 8, 2009

PUGS Pointers #23: Plural Pronouns Pose Problems

PUGS* Pointers
(*Punctuation, Usage, Grammar, and Spelling)
by Kathy Ide

In this column, freelance author, editor, and speaker Kathy Ide shares tips on Punctuation, Usage, Grammar, and Spelling (“PUGS”).

For . . . sake Expressions
“For . . . sake” expressions usually leave off the s when the noun ends in an s or an s sound. Examples:
for righteousness’ sake
for goodness’ sake
for heaven’s sake

See The Chicago Manual of Style (15th edition) #7.22 and The Associated Press Stylebook page 326.


altar (noun): a table or platform used in a church service
“The new bride and groom prayed together at the altar.”

alter (verb): to change
“Roxanne hoped his outburst wouldn’t alter their friendship in any way.”


Make sure the pronoun and its antecedent agree in number.
“Trevor’s two sons are sloppy.” (plural)
“Neither one of them combs his hair.” (singular)
“Portia’s two daughters are neat; they both clean up after themselves.” (plural)

NOTE: In an effort to avoid gender bias (using he to refer to both sexes) and the annoying repetition of him/her, he or she, and the like, some writers use they as a singular pronoun when referring to someone whose gender is unknown or irrelevant.
“If an editor (singular) likes your query, they (plural) will request a proposal.”

However, using the plural pronoun they to refer to a singular antecedent presents a problem in agreement. This style is acceptable in verbal speech, but not in writing.

You could reword the above sentence to:
“If an editor likes your query, he or she will request a proposal.” OR
“If the editors like your query, they will request a proposal.”


brainpower (one word, not two)


PUGS Pointers are based on the current industry-standard references in the United States.

For books:
The Chicago Manual of Style (15th edition, © 2003)
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition, © 2003)

For articles:
The Associated Press Stylebook (© 2004)
Webster’s New World College Dictionary (© 2002)

Many publishing houses have their own in-house style guides that may differ in some aspects from the standard references. However, unless you’re writing exclusively for one particular publisher, it’s best to follow the standard references and let the in-house proofreaders adjust to house style.

For more PUGS Pointers, see Kathy Ide’s Web site. Or get her book Polishing the PUGS, available at


Kathy Ide has been writing for publication since 1988. She has written books, articles, play and movie scripts, short stories, devotionals, and curriculum. She is a full-time freelance editor, offering a full range of editorial services for aspiring writers, established authors, commercial book publishers, subsidy publishers, and magazines. Her services include proofreading, copyediting, substantive/content editing, coauthoring, ghostwriting, and mentoring/coaching. She also speaks at writers conferences across the country. She is the founder and coordinator of The Christian PEN: Proofreaders and Editors Network ( and the Christian Editor Network ( To find out more, please visit

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