Grammar Moses: I had had it with pronouns, but then I saw the light

  • This isn't a grammar issue but more of a fun product adjacency one. Said contributor Cynthia Cwynar: "Looks more like meatless bones to me."

    This isn't a grammar issue but more of a fun product adjacency one. Said contributor Cynthia Cwynar: "Looks more like meatless bones to me." Courtesy of Cynthia Cwynar

Updated 9/21/2019 6:39 PM

Be mindful about what you read before you turn the light off. It could be the difference between a pleasant slumber and a nightmare.

"Hi, Jim. Last night I was reading a book and came across something strange that I've seen before, but rarely," wrote reader Will Pastor. "Here is what I read: 'Frank had had a disease of the testes that had left him almost sterile.' Now, as disturbing as that sentence is to any guy, I was referring to the double 'had.' Unless Frank was stuttering, is it really necessary to say it twice?"


Sidestepping a discussion of Will's choice of reading material, here is my take: The second "had" has a different meaning from the first. The first suggests this disease is in the past.

In journalistic writing, we generally write in past tense (because we document what happened, I guess.) So if it were "Frank had a disease of the testes ..." one might be led to believe he STILL has the disease. The second 'had' tells us he's either better now or sterile -- or both.

However, I can't think of an excuse for the third "had" in that sentence.

Pronoun problems

Reader Mike Goba said he needs a refresher course in when to use singular and plural pronouns. I'm always happy to oblige.

"I am referring to the switching of singulars to plurals in certain circumstances. For example, 'If you know someONE who could use my help, please have THEM call me so I can give THEM some advice.' Is this the only way to get around having to write 'him/her' all of the time? Do you have any alternatives for situations such as these?"

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Allow me to paint two scenarios, the first of which gives in to common usage (but with a reason):

1. The issue of which pronoun to use for someone who identifies as neither male nor female has (sort of) solved the problem of the clumsy "him or her" construction.

Increasingly, "him or her" doesn't cover everyone in your field of possibilities.

"Someone" is singular and increasingly "them" is used as a singular personal pronoun for anybody. Using "them" in this case serves to be more inclusive while at the same time being less clumsy.

I've never been fond of appropriating a plural form for use as a singular form, because it might cause confusion.

But in this case, the implication is not that you are willing to help one person but more.

2. Mike's question is which word to use. My answer is to rewrite the sentence to achieve pronoun-antecedent agreement, something that will make the prescriptivists among you happy.


You can write around just about any problem, you see.

"If you know of people who could use my help, please have them call me so I can offer advice."

Mike, like many, also has trouble with team names.

"Is it proper to use words like 'they' and 'them' when referring to a company or organization? For example, stating, 'The Cubs had a great game today. Their pitching was outstanding!' I would feel awkward writing 'Its pitching was outstanding!' Another example would be 'Target had a surprise sale. They had everything at 10 percent off.'"

The answers to these questions are remarkably simple.

With businesses, whether the name is singular or plural, go with a singular pronoun. "Joe's Supply Shack is having a sale on camouflage tube socks, but its two-gallon barrel of puffy cheese niblets is still $3.97."

"Lugnut Bros. will replace all your brakes for free, but its mandatory disposal fee for your worn-out brakes is roughly the cost of a new set."

With team names, don't get panicky about how to discuss the game when the Bulls are playing the Heat (where one team names sounds plural and the other sounds singular.)

It's commonly accepted (and Associated Press style) to treat both types of team names as plural.

"The Bulls are playing the Heat tonight. The Bulls are on a 10-game skid; the Heat are on a 14-game losing streak. Tickets are still $200."

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald. Write him at Put Grammar Moses in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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