I've been practising for the coming SAT, and I got confused by this question from the writing section. It read something like this:

John was one of the astronomers who devoted all their time to science.

It was in the error identification section, and the insidious error was in the pronoun "their". Could you please explain this to me?


I'm sorry, my fault. I've found the original, and now I clearly see the error. Here is the original sentence:

George Thornton Emmons was one of a handful of ethnographers who committed their life to studying the Tlingit culture of Northwest Coast.

The error is obviously in "life". It should be "lives". I feel ashamed of myself. Sorry I bothered you, and anyway, thank you for your responses.

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    It looks correct to me, but it's possible they're looking for "devoted all his time to science". The reason I say it looks correct is that "devoted all their time to science" refers to the behavior of group of astronomers, of which John is a member. – Liesmith Nov 21 '14 at 22:12
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    I doubt this is on the SAT itself. This probly comes from a book publisher who just want to sell books and don't know shit about grammar. There are more of those than the useful kind. Forget about it; it's fine and the book is wrong. Sorry about that, but the price of gullibility is high. – John Lawler Nov 21 '14 at 22:39
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    It is from the official sat prep blue book, actually. – Vlad Sobol Nov 21 '14 at 22:42
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    "Something like this" is not very useful in this situation: can you give the verbatim quote? – Tim Lymington Nov 21 '14 at 22:49
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is based on a false premise. – tchrist Nov 21 '14 at 23:33

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the original sentence.

There would also be absolutely nothing wrong with this alternative, which is probably what the examiners wanted:

John was one of the astronomers who devoted all his time to science.

As FumbleFingers pointed out, this is partly because some (archaically) believe that 'he' is the only suitable gender-neutral pronoun.

In this case I think there are reasons why one might pick one over the other, because it can emphasize whether it's John or some anonymous group of astronomers devoting their time to science.

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    What the examiners appear to want is commonly said, but is not technically correct. The sentence is logically: John is one of [the astronomers who devoted all their time to science]. – tunny Nov 22 '14 at 0:23
  • @tunny - I can read it as: "John is one of the astronomers, who devoted all his time to science." Just depends on where you place the emphasis. – Lynn Nov 22 '14 at 0:45
  • Pl see my comment at Centaurus. – Kris Nov 22 '14 at 5:10
  • @Kris - I don't understand. I thought I stated that the error was that the exam thought it should be "his" because of pronoun agreement? – Lynn Nov 22 '14 at 6:10
  • @Lynn The comma is pretty important too. – tunny Nov 22 '14 at 6:50

It is grammatical.

John was one of several astronomers who devoted all their time to Science.

"their" refers to "several astronomers" and John was just one of them.

"Mary Ann is one of the girls who are going to run the marathon." "

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  • So then what's the answer? We are looking for the error, not validating the sentence. – Kris Nov 22 '14 at 5:10
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    @Kris, I think the answer is that the question is faulty. – A E Nov 22 '14 at 10:06
  • Even if "their" referred to John it would still be correct, since "they" can be used in the singular in English, and while not common, it has been used as such for centuries. "Reffers", however, is not correct. – David Conrad Nov 22 '14 at 13:07
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    How can a faulty question have a valid answer? Just wondering. – Kris Nov 22 '14 at 14:53
  • Have you voted to close the question? – Kris Nov 22 '14 at 14:53

I think the point is the sentence is about John. The fact that John is an astronomer is secondary. Therefor the pronoun should relate directly to John.

That being said, I've no problem with the sentence you were given either, since it seems to me that the sentence could equally be perceived to be about a life of science, which makes the astronomers more important since John is only a small part of the group that devote their life to science.

Seems like a silly point to grade people on unless you've specifically been told an order in which you should focus on nouns in sentences.

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    Please see my comment at cpburnz. Also, even if it was about John, their would still work and cannot be called an error. – Kris Nov 22 '14 at 5:11
  • @Kris I don't feel your comment to cpburnz has any relevance to my answer. In any case the OP wasn't asking if there was in fact a grammatical error. They were asking for possible explanations to why they were marked down on an apparent grammatical error as far as the assessor was concerned. In this case I felt it necessary to attempt to explain the assessor's thinking in this scenario. – NICHOLAS MARK AMOS Nov 23 '14 at 7:31

I'm assuming they're looking for "his" instead of "their", since "John" would seem to be the subject of the sentence.

However, "the astronomers" are the subject. John is one of them. "The astronomers who devoted all their time to science" is a noun phrase. That John is a member should not affect the construction of that noun phrase. The Elements of Style says this:

A common blunder is the use of a singular verb form in a relative clause following "one of..." or a similar expression when the relative is the subject.

Incorrect: "One of the ablest scientists who has attacked this problem"

Correct: "One of the ablest scientists who have attacked this problem"

If you wanted to construct a sentence where "his" would be more appropriate, you could say, "John, one of the astronomers, devoted all his time to science".

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  • Oh, I see. He edited his post after I commented. – wjandrea Nov 22 '14 at 23:36
  • You're right! I'll remove my comment. Sorry. – anongoodnurse Nov 23 '14 at 0:37

The proper answer is:

John was one of the astronomers who devoted all his time to science.

"... devoted all his time to science." refers to John, not the astronomers.

It is common in everyday speech to hear their in place of his or hers but it is grammatically incorrect.

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    That's just one other interpretation, how would one know what the author's intent was? – Kris Nov 22 '14 at 5:09
  • As far as I know, their is used when one does not want to specify the gender of the speaker (his / her). In this case it is clear that it is a he. – Giorgio Nov 22 '14 at 10:19
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    It is incorrectly regarded as grammatically incorrect. – David Conrad Nov 22 '14 at 13:11
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    Gender/PC issues aside, their is third person plural and perfectly matches the plural astronomers. – Hagen von Eitzen Nov 22 '14 at 14:59

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