This is a guest post by Kevin Craner. If you want to write for Daily Writing Tips check the guidelines here.
What’s the scariest thing about Halloween II? The chilling music? The gore? The sight of Michael Myers raising his blood-soaked knife to yet another helpless victim? Well, if you care about grammar, the scariest thing is the blurb on the back of the DVD box.
Read it, and you’ll learn that Halloween Uncut grossed $80 million worldwide. That’s plenty of money with which to hire the best copywriters, the best proofreaders, the best—well, the best everyone and everything. So how did the error in the sentence below make it in to print?
But the town’s got an unlikely new hero, if they can only stay alive long enough to stop the unstoppable.
If you’re not sure what the error is, ask yourself this: which word does the pronoun they replace? You might think it replaces hero. And on the face of it, that makes sense—after all, the hero is the one who will “stop the unstoppable.” But there’s a problem: it can’t replace hero, because hero is singular whereas they is plural.
O.K, so if it doesn’t replace hero, it must replace town. But there’s another problem: it can’t replace town, because town is also singular. You know it’s singular because the writer used a singular verb (has rather than have). Remove the contraction and this becomes clear:
But the town has got an unlikely new hero…
The sentence is, therefore, a meaningless mess. They refers to neither the town nor the hero. The reader has to guess what the writer meant. (If you’re wondering, there’s nothing in the preceding blurb to which the they could refer.)
Remember: Whenever you use a pronoun, check that it agrees in number with the word that it replaces—that is, unless it’s Halloween and you want to scare an English teacher.
U.K. resident Kevin Craner is a lawyer and writer. He has written comedy for the BBC, and is a regular contributor to “Humor Press”—winning first place in its June/July 2009 competition. He also writes a humor blog.