A simple writing mistake and solution.

This colorful sentence illustrates a very common and correctable problem in writing.

Imagine asking a surgeon about the process they follow during an operation, and hearing them reply, “I don’t know, I just start cutting and hope it all works out.”

Let’s strip away everything but the ‘people’ words: ‘a surgeon’, ‘they’, ‘them’, and ‘I’. With this view, it’s hard to know whether the sentence refers to a single surgeon, or a group. (Either way, let’s hope you have some good insurance…)

‘They’ and ‘them’ -the plural pronouns- have been used instead of their singular counterparts: ‘he’ and ‘him’.

‘a surgeon’ establishes the ‘number’ which the rest of the sentence must obey. Thus, Imagine asking a surgeon about the process he follows during an operation, and hearing him reply, “I don’t know, I just start cutting and hope it all works out.”

Since we don’t know the surgeon’s gender, we could just as easily write ‘she’ and ‘her’ instead. Or, even ‘she or he’ and ‘her or him’. What’s important is that the number be consistent.

This is a fairly simple error; one that we all commit from time to time. At first, it may take an extra moment to remind yourself when writing and editing, but eventually it will become second nature. Soon, your effort will produce first-class writing.

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