Letter: What happened to proper English?

To the editor:

The old joke goes this way. Two school teachers were discussing academics. One, a math teacher, asked the other, a language arts teacher, “Which is correct? Two and two are four or two and two is four?” To which the latter replied, “How should I know, I’m not a math teacher.”

Proper English usage in speech is problematic for all of us. Here is an example. Which is correct and why? “Everyone has/have their thinking cap on.” The pronoun, “everyone” is singular and requires a singular verb, “has.” Therefore, the pronoun subject in this sentence agrees in number with its verb, the singular “has.” Because consistency is always appropriate in proper grammar usage, the adjective “their” must agree in number with the subject and the verb.

“Their” is plural in number and is incorrect as a modifier in the sentence. To be correct, the sentence may use “his” or “her” or the combination “his/her” as the modifier. Singular pronouns such as “one,” “anyone,” “someone” or “each one” require the same attention to detail in all verbs and modifiers as the above example dictates. Sometimes I get the feeling that our schools and students are losing their battle with precision in speech and action.

Our politicians, news media personalities and presenters everywhere fall short in this. I wish we could restrict the use of pronouns in our speech to help curb this pervasive problem. One could say, “Jill has her thinking cap on.” or “Jack and Jill have their thinking caps on.” Not only would using a proper noun in the place of the pronoun sound right to the ear every time but his use would clarify and further describe the message.

As a language arts teacher in the early 1960s, I noticed marked speech change to the worse regarding the use of the word “their” and agreement in number with words, in general, coincident with the new feminist movement, NOW, established by Betty Friedan and others. The perceived logic therein depicts the pronoun “his” as inadequate to describe both male and female entities to now use the plural pronoun “their” instead as a preferred substitute.

I support equal rights in all circumstances for women, from equal wages for equal work, to making Hillary Clinton our first woman president. Nevertheless, these positions are not inconsistent, as I see it, with expecting proper grammar from our citizens.

John B. Baker