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Consider this example:

Sustainability management in large organisations is an important activity that helps to achieve one’s business goals while at the same time reducing their environmental impact and improving benefits to wider society."

Does it make sense to use both one’s and their to refer to organisations in the quoted sentence above?

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I think the writer intended the referent of their to be one's business goals. If you read it that way, it is grammatical. –  Peter Shor Aug 6 '12 at 14:57
    
@PeterShor My hunch is that you’re right. How might you reword it to remove the ambiguity? –  tchrist Aug 6 '12 at 15:06
    
not the best, but... To help achieve one’s business goals, while at the same time reducing their environmental impact and improving benefits to wider society, large organizations use Sustainability Management, an important activity. –  Billeeb Aug 6 '12 at 16:29
    
Neither pronoun is needed if you reword the sentence to be more direct; eg: "Large organizations use Sustainability Management to broaden the benefits and reduce environmental impact of actions that forward business goals." –  jwpat7 Aug 6 '12 at 16:52
    
The easiest thing to do is just leave out the 'their': "Sustainability management in large organisations is an important activity that helps to achieve one’s business goals while at the same time reducing environmental impact and improving benefits to wider society." –  Peter Shor Aug 6 '12 at 17:09

6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Whether it makes the best possible sense, one cannot comment upon with certainty, but it is neither uncommon nor new to arrange one’s pronouns in this way.

In this instance, you cannot help but wonder whether using two different pronouns necessarily implies two different referents, and so you reread and reassign trying to make some pair of choices so it reads sensibly. You waste a bad bit of time this way, and you aren’t ever quite sure your guesses are right.

A careful writer might well wish to make both their pronoun references look the same, for if they were to do so, there would be little cause for complaint.

Well, except that peppering a sentence with too many instances of one and one’s and oneself gets a bit heavy-handed, so a bit of relief from they and theirs and themselves (and with courage, even themself) can break that stuffiness up.

But do as thou wilt.


Edit

There can be no question whether the sentence is grammatical: it is. That doesn’t mean it’s sensible. Colorless green dreams resting furiously is grammatical, too — and nonsense.

The real problem is what we have no idea what the devil the cited passage actually means. Because that question arises, we know that it’s its style, not its grammar, wherein the problem lies.

Peter Shor points out that the intended antecedent of their might be business goals, not organisations nor one. If he is correct, then this makes it the business goals’ environmental impact which are under discussion here. Maybe.

This may well be the writer’s intent, but if so, she should have made this clear instead of making her readers puzzle over what goes where. She should throw the entire miserable sentence down the garbage disposal. This writer needs to start from scratch, carving up her long and confusing sentence into several shorter and clearer ones — and preferably ones where you don’t feel like she’s playing all three of Buzzword Bingo®, Pronomial Twister®, and Nominalization Balderdash® at the same time. Nor any at all, really.

That’s all I have to say, because — doubt it though ye may — I’ve just run out of new personal pronouns to use in new paragraphs.

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I see what you did there. –  KitFox Aug 6 '12 at 13:24
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Courtesy of Cerberus, this is what Fowler has to say. –  RegDwigнt Aug 6 '12 at 13:29
    
Subject and predicate identification has a lot to tell about the meaning of the sentences. I think that's the answer. And I dare to say that's almost obvious that "their" goes with "one's business goals" which could be replaced with "goals" hence the "their". –  Billeeb Aug 6 '12 at 18:44

It gets clearer when you use subject and predicate to understand the sentence.

Predicate (who/which/what/etc):

is an important activity that helps to achieve one’s business goals while at the same time reducing their environmental impact and improving benefits to wider society.

Subject:

The Sustainability Management, and you may keep digging.

Predicate (who/which/what/etc):

helps to achieve one’s business goals while at the same time reducing their environmental impact and improving benefits to wider society.

Subject:

The Sustainability Management that is an important activity.

Predicate (who/which/what/etc):

are reducing their environmental impact and improving benefits to (a) wider society.

Subject:

One’s business goals, which the sustainability management, that is an important activity, helps to achieve.

There are two sentences inside the paragraph, that's the complex part I think. Hope this helps!

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By WHO, do you mean World Health Organization? If so, how is it relevant? If not, and you mean some arbitrary subject, perhaps use X instead of WHO. –  jwpat7 Aug 6 '12 at 16:43
    
When you want to know WHO the subject is in a sentence you ask WHO is doing the action to the verb (the action), so, the answer is your subject. Maybe you're irritated because the caps? I'll remove them, but that doesn't change the overall idea. I cant' believe you didn't get when I used PREDICATE. Maybe I should have put those in caps. –  Billeeb Aug 6 '12 at 16:59
    
I didn't see any occurrences of PREDICATE; I saw Predicate. Note, I think using X is more clear than WHO or (who). X, being more general, can be thought to fit grammatically, where (who) suggests the beginning of a dependent clause. Also note, the words between your quote blocks do not form proper sentences, which makes it difficult to understand what you are getting at. You probably have some useful thoughts in mind, but I think they aren't expressed clearly in what you wrote. –  jwpat7 Aug 6 '12 at 17:13
    
Subject/predicate. You / are wrong. Subject: You. Predicate: are wrong. How do I get that? Asking "WHO" to the predicate. who does the action. In this case, "who is wrong". The answer is "you". So "you" is the subject. "Are" is the verb to be conjugated, "wrong" is firstly a Circumstantial Complement of Mode (don't know how you call it in English). –  Billeeb Aug 6 '12 at 18:57
    
Your most recent comment has 11 items terminated by period or question mark. Four of those items are sentences; seven are fragments of sentences. A similar ratio occurs in your answer. Many of the fragments are not understandable. That is what I meant when I said that your thoughts were not expressed clearly. Good day. –  jwpat7 Aug 6 '12 at 19:41

I'm saying yes, it's correct.

Their in your example is simply an inflected form of singular they, which is there to avoid specifying sex. "One" and singular "they" are both singular and in your example refer to the same entity.

Imagine this:

Sustainability management is an important activity that helps to achieve one's business goals while at the same time reducing his/her environmental impact and improving benefits to wider society.

In the original example, singular their simply avoids saying his/her, which is awkward.

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I'm not so sure that his/her would be correct in the sentence. You assume that "their" refers to the same person as "one" does, but it could just as well refer to "business goals" (which, in my opinion, is even likelier). Then it's also bizarre to claim that "One" and *singular "they" are both singular... –  Paola Aug 6 '12 at 14:47
    
If the sentence says: "one's shining hair". "Their" would be out of place and should say "its". Like: Sustainability management in large organizations is an important activity that helps to achieve one’s money while at the same time reducing its environmental impact and improving benefits to wider society. –  Billeeb Aug 6 '12 at 18:45

It certainly is confusing.

I took the pronoun "one" as having a general antecedent like "a manager," "an individual," "someone," etc. which makes the implication more personal. "Sustainability management, after all, should be done by a manager.

Also, "their" can easily be linked to "business goals."

All of which are results of the inconsistent use of pronouns.

It would be very helpful to and considerate of the readers to be clear about the references. Although there's no grammatical issue about the sentence per se, it would be a much more effective style -- and thus in the writer's best interest -- to present the ideas with no room for confusion.

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But that's not the problem. The sentence has 5 verbs inside. So, its a complex sentence and by the way is constructed, its more complex than common sentences. If you delete the "one's business" declaration, leaving just "goals" you'll see that "The goals" are the subject of that part of the complex sentence. If you refer to a previous statement in the same sentence, you commonly use a recall to the first so it gets clear for the reader (early mentioned, previously said, etc). –  Billeeb Aug 6 '12 at 19:33
    
@Billeeb, I fail to see your point. Everyone can see that it's a "complex" sentence. (In grammar, the terms "complex sentence" and "subject" both have specific meanings that I can't trace in what you said.) What is it exactly that you propose? –  Cool Elf Aug 7 '12 at 17:08

I would say No. In the sentence

Sustainability management in large organisations is an important activity that helps to achieve one’s business goals while at the same time reducing their environmental impact and improving benefits to wider society.

it's not clear what their is referring to. Is it the business goals, or the large organisations?

Who is one? Generally it's a non-specific person, or perhaps — royalty are prone to this — "me". It's a singular pronoun. It does not refer to the large organisations!

The word one's should be their. And you can probably remove the second their because "benefits" are not attributed to anything in particular either. The second their could remain, but might be more awkward than removing it.

Sustainability management in large organisations is an important activity that helps to achieve their business goals while at the same time reducing environmental impact and improving benefits to wider society.

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I like this, and have voted to delete my answer. But may I urge you to consider removing the first pronoun, too? What purpose does it serve. (And me, I'd kill "important activity", too, which is just fluff: "Sustainability management helps large organisations achieve &c") –  StoneyB Aug 6 '12 at 13:51
    
If the sentence says: "one's shining hair". "Their" would be out of place and should say "its". Like: Sustainability management in large organizations is an important activity that helps to achieve one’s money while at the same time reducing its environmental impact and improving benefits to wider society. –  Billeeb Aug 6 '12 at 16:35

I believe there's a whole generation gap between one's and their. While one's has been in accepted use as long as I can remember, their is still in debate (okay, some don't like to agree and insist it is already here to stay -- I have issues).

So, the whole thing is to ensure the author decides where his readers belong and accordingly use either the one's structure or the their structure, and be consistent -- never mix the two, certainly not in the same sentence as in the example.

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So this is only for male authors, right? –  tchrist Aug 6 '12 at 13:46
    
@tchrist - Zing! ... I'm new - Should I respond to your question respecting my deleted answer to this question? and if so, How? –  StoneyB Aug 6 '12 at 14:24
    
Read page 901–903, please. –  tchrist Aug 6 '12 at 14:59
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@tchrist and one up-voter: Wonder what makes you think so. There is absolutely no reason for such an inference. And I had certainly not meant any. Are you implying that one's refers to male and their is neutral? –  Kris Aug 7 '12 at 11:12
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It's not merely a matter of generational difference; it's a matter of consistent usage. "One" and "their" simply don't work well together. If you use "one," then use "one's" as your possessive term; if you find that too formal or stilted, then don't use "one" at all. –  senderle Dec 7 at 19:53

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