In her “Get to the Point” columns, Teddy Snyder has led us all to question our writing and speaking habits (and our hot dog acumen). In particular, “Lawyers’ Top Three Grammar Goof-ups” inspired a lively LinkedIn discussion around the writing mistakes that irritate you most. So, with apologies to David Allan Coe, Steve Goodman and John Prine, here’s another grammar issue that sets readers’ teeth on edge.
“You Never Even Call Me By My Name”
- “If a lawyer’s client is thinking about leaving town, they need to consider the consequences.”
- “After you identify the responsible person, tell them to contact me.”
- “Can a party fire their lawyer?”
Of course, the problem is that the “client,” the “person” and the “party” are singular, but the words “they,” “them” and “their” are plural. The pronoun reference to a singular noun should also be singular.
Awkward as it may be, the politically and grammatically correct write like this:
- “If an attorney has retired from the active practice of law in New York and in all other jurisdictions in which he or she is admitted to practice, he or she may certify … that he or she is retired.” (New York State Unified Court System website.)
- “Can’t you just call my lawyer and tell him or her to do something?” (FAQ on Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania website.)
- “Are there limits on how aggressively a lawyer can defend his or her client?” (FAQ on Federal Judicial Center website.)
Some writers try to sound more natural by reworking the sentence to make the plural correct. For example, ”Are there limits on how aggressively lawyers can defend their clients?” Sometimes that works, but sometimes it can’t. For example, if you change “once the witness is ready, direct him or her to the stand” to “once the witnesses are ready, direct them to the stand,” you are going to need bleachers.
Solution? Repeat the Noun
A simple solution is to call your Darlin’ “Darlin’.” A pronoun substitutes for a noun. Rather than struggle for the best pronoun, don’t substitute. Simply repeat the noun. For example:
- Not, “Before your Darlin’ goes to sleep, kiss him or her goodnight,” but, “Before your Darlin’ goes to sleep, kiss your Darlin’ goodnight.”
- Or how about, “Once the witness is ready, direct the witness to the stand.”
- Or, “If a lawyer is considering going solo, the lawyer can find good advice on this website.”
- A firm’s office manual could state, “When a client arrives, offer the client a beverage.”
So, when you get your buddy from the prison in your pick-up truck on the way to drown your buddy’s sorrows at your buddy’s mama’s place near the train station, just enjoy being with “your buddy” — instead of “him or her.”
Theda C. “Teddy” Snyder mediates workers’ compensation cases throughout California. An attorney since 1977, she has practiced in a variety of settings and is a frequent speaker and author on topics impacting settlement and the business of law. She is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management. Based in Los Angeles, Teddy can be found at www.WCMediator.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @WCMediator.