22. Dr. E's grammar sequence

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Instructions for Lesson 22

1. Read this page. Grammar, style, and writing mechanics now come into focus as we edit and revise our drafts.
2. Your research report (assigned in Lesson 18) is now due).






Module 1

1: Orientation  
2: Goals   

Module 2

  3: Euthyphro  
     4: The Library
 5: The Apology   
    6: Citation   
    7: Crito
    8: Phaedo  
    9: Exam Prep   
10: Plato Exam

Module 3

11: Research Project 
12: Research 101   
13: Books   
14: the Librarian   
15: the Web   
16: conferences  
17: Joy of Research 
18: Reasoning 

Module 4

19: Outlines 
20: Review the Plan:
21: Language 
22: Dr E's Grammar
23: Peer Review  
24: Hit Parade 

Module 5

25: About the Exam
26: Mock Final 
27: Exam Prep
28: Graduation 



Correct use of the English language, use according to the  rule book,  is demanded at the Academy. You won't pass the English 101 Final Exam without it. Take time to study Dr. E's presentations below, including her linked pages. 

1. sexist language
the most common error in North America

Here's an example of the most common grammar mistake in North America: Each student should have their own ID number.

Let me explain a bit: a pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun. The noun which the pronoun replaces is called its antecedent. In the following example

Jack hit the ball. He really smoked it.

the antecedent of He is Jack, and the antecedent of it is ball.

Easy? Yes! It's also easy to see that the pronoun should agree with--or match--its antecedent in ''number.'' That is, if the antecedent is singular, the pronoun should be singular; if the antecedent is plural, the pronoun should be plural. Here are a few examples:

Jack bought cigars. He really smoked them.
The teachers graded their papers.
All students should have their own ID numbers.

So, what about the most common mistake? Each student should have their own ID number? The pronoun their refers back to student. But student is a singular noun, and their a plural pronoun.

Frankly, I spend tons of time each semester correcting this mistake in student papers. Americans just seem to love to use the pronouns they, them, themselves, their and theirs to refer back to all nouns, singular or plural--it doesn't matter. Why ? Why can't we refer back to singular nouns with singular pronouns ? Why are we always reaching for they, them, themselves, their and theirs instead ?

Consider Peter Drucker's short essay "The Work of the Manager.''  Drucker today is thought of as the father of modern business management. His books are classics in this now-crowded field, but here's the opening paragraph of this particular essay:

We can apply to the job of the manager the systematic analysis of Scientific Management. We can isolate that which a man does because he is a manager. We can divide it into the basic constituent operations. And a man can improve his performance as a manager by improving his performance of these constituent motions.

Notice that in this paragraph, Drucker assumes that the manager is a man. (Well, this article was written in the 1950's, so he was probably right.) Also notice how grammatically correct it is for Drucker to use the singular pronoun he or his to refer back to the antecedent man. That's a singular pronoun (he or his) to refer to a singular noun (man).

So far, so good, But now notice what Drucker does in the paragraphs that follow that opening one:

There are five such basic operations in the work of the manager. Together they result in the integration of resources into a living and growing organism.

A manager, in the first place, sets objectives. He determines what the objectives should be. He determines what the goals in each area of objectives should be . He decides what has to be done to reach these objectives. He makes the objectives effective by communicating them to the people whose performance is needed to attain them.

Secondly, a manager organizes. He analyzes the activities, decisions and relations needed. He classifies the work. He divides it into manageable activities. He further divides the activities into manageable jobs. He groups these units and jobs into an organization structure. He selects people for the management of these units and for the jobs to be done.

Next a manager motivates and communicates. He makes a team out of the people that are responsible for various jobs. He does that through the practices with which he manages. He does it in his own relation to the men he manages. He does it through incentives and rewards for successful work. He does it through his promotion policy. And he does it through constant communication, both from the manager to his subordinate, and from the subordinate to the manager.

The fourth basic element in the work of the manager is the job of measurement. The manager establishes measuring yardsticks--and there are few factors as important to the performance of the organization and of every man in it. He sees to it that each man in the organization has measurements available to him which are focused on the performance of the whole organization and which at the same time focus on the work of the individual and help him do it. He analyzes performance, appraises it and interprets it. And again, as in every other area of his work, he communicates both the meaning of the measurements and their findings to his subordinates as well as to his superiors.

Finally, a manager develops people. Through the way he manages he makes it easy or difficult for them to develop themselves. He directs people or misdirects them. He brings out what is in them or he stifles them. He strengthens their integrity or he corrupts them. He trains them to stand upright and strong or he deforms them.

Every manager does these things when he manages--whether he know it or not. He may do them well, or he may do them wretchedly. But he always does them.

In his opening paragraph, Drucker refers back to the singular noun man with the singular pronoun he, as is logical to do. But notice that when Drucker uses the generic word manager (which is neither masculine nor feminine) he still refers back to this generic noun with the masculine pronoun he. Drucker was simply following a grammar rule of his day which said, "Always refer to a neuter or generic antecedent with the masculine pronoun."

This same rule would produce the sentence: "Each student should use his own ID number.'' During the 1970s, however, American feminists fought to get this male pronoun preference rule kicked out of the textbooks. The new rule in American English says that we should always refer back to a generic noun with both masculine and feminine pronouns. So we say: Each student should have his or her own ID number.

This technical solution is all well and good, except that the rule is too much work for us. We are lazy. Instead of his or her, we slide into their. Someday the textbooks may allow each student to have their own ID, but for now it is best to say that students (plural) can have their (plural) own ID's.


1) When you read "The Work of the Manager," can you see why, decades ago, feminists were upset with the masculine-pronoun-preference rule ?

2) But do you think that Drucker should have replaced each ''he'' with a ''he or she''? That would produce sentences like these: Every manager does these things when he or she manages--whether he or she knows it or not. He or she may do them well, or he or she may do them wretchedly. But he or she always does them.

Does this sound insanely wordy?

3) Do you think that people are choosing the pronouns they, them and their in order to avoid being insanely wordy on the one hand or sexist on the other ?

4) Listen to your friends and associates. Which choices are they making?

5) And how would you revise Drucker's sentences to respect contemporary values and avoid wordiness ?

[Dr. G's Note: The "sexist" issue goes well beyond the he-manager problem. For instance our language allows a plural for "Mr."--namely "Messrs."--but there's no plural for "Mrs."

Hacker addresses sexist language, and related topics such as offensive language, slang and jargon under the heading of "appropriate voice" (A Pocket Style Manual 18; see also the "Sexist Language" page on Hacker's website ). To many academics, these are extremely serious issues. New students accustomed to hearing slang, insults and profanities all day long in the outside world do not always recognize that the language in the academy is not the same as the language of everyday life. To insult somebody up here on the hill you had better find a very subtle way to do it, so that nobody notices. You might better play with the insult generator.]

2. Dr. E's Grammar Sequence

For a full review of English grammar, and typical student writing problems, please review the links below:

See also Dr. E's web site A Grammar Sequence for College Writers.

3. Other language help

Grammar and technical aspects of English are also reviewed in detail in Hacker's A Pocket Style Manual

  • grammar and mechanical rules, pages 1-99

  • glossary of misused words (affect-effect and the like), pages 210-220

  • glossary of grammatical terms, see pages 220-227.

Hacker's companion web site contains many useful grammar exercises and interesting language debates. If you are asked to sign in, use your name and Dr. G's public email address: gutchess@englishare.net.

Assignment (due in Lesson 23): During the next two lessons, we will review fellow students' draft research papers, as assigned by the instructor. 


























Left: Peter Drucker, management guru.





gutchess@englishare.net                    Academic writing home page                    Gary Gutchess 2003