Sunday, May 13, 2007

“His,” “Hers” or “Theirs”

Many of my ESL students have studied a great deal of grammar in their home countries. Their knowledge of English grammar is probably better than mine! However, when it comes to “sounding like a native,” I usually win! Not only do I have a really good American accent (which is good, since I’m a native-born American!), but I know what liberties I can take with the language.

All kidding aside, one of the things it would be helpful for ESL teachers to teach ESL students is how the English language is constantly changing (evolving?). Grammar rules that seemed to be written in stone with harsh penalties for violation are no longer absolutes. New words are added to English dictionaries every year. Grammar, vocabulary and meanings all change over time depending on how we use the language on a day-to-day basis.

The pronouns “he” and “she” are being replaced with “they.” “His” and “her” are being replaced with “their.” “Him” and “her” are being replaced with “them.” Twenty years ago, the following sentence would have been grammatically unacceptable, “Someone left their ESL grammar book on the table.” However, because of cultural and social changes, and the way we actually speak, this sentence is now perfectly normal in spoken English and in informal written English.

However, we are still at the point in the history of the English language that formal or academic writings should still follow the old rules of grammar. So the most grammatically and socially correct way to write this sentence would be, “Someone left his or her ESL grammar book on the table.”

These types of “usage notes” or comments about how to use the English language are all included in the Longman Advanced American Dictionary. I find this very useful when I have to prove to a student that I really know what I’m talking about!


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