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I wonder if the following phrase is grammatically correct: "one is only poor, if they choose to be".

This is a quote from the song "Coat of Many Colors" by Dolly Parton. I know that songs don't follow strict grammar rules, but I wondered if it is correct. I understand the meaning: a person can have a good life even if he is poor.

Anyway "one" is singular, "they" is plural. Is that correct?

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It is not the fact that "they" is plural that is the problem here, it is that "they" is not readily compatible with the subject.

One is only poor if one chooses to be is a better form.

You could use "they" if you used a compatible subject e.g. A person is only poor if they choose to be.

"They" can be a singular pronoun, but it is difficult to pair any pronoun with the use of "one".

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    it is difficult to pair any pronoun with the use of "one". -- indeed, especially since "one" is in fact also a pronoun. The phrase seems akin to saying "She is only poor if they choose to be." – RaceYouAnytime Apr 24 '17 at 23:36
  • @RaceYouAnytime Not really, that is what intensive pronouns are for. "one is only poor, if they themselves choose to be". – Phil Sweet Apr 25 '17 at 2:32
  • @PhilSweet wouldn't it still be preferable to write, "They are only poor if they themselves choose to be?" Does adding an intensive pronoun make the statement less problematic than the original phrase in question? – RaceYouAnytime Apr 25 '17 at 2:43
  • @RaceYouAnytime yes, it makes it explicit that one and they are one and the same, as opposed to the collateral damage version. – Phil Sweet Apr 25 '17 at 2:56
  • @PhilSweet that still seems to defy pronoun-antecedent agreement. You wouldn't say "He is only poor if they themselves choose to be." Why is it acceptable with "One," and not "He?" – RaceYouAnytime Apr 25 '17 at 3:03
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According to this performance https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1zJzr-kWsI and the Wikipedia article about the song, the quote is, "One is only poor only if (you/they) choose to be". But let's stick with your version for now.

This is, after all, a Country & Western song, written and sung by Dolly Parton, so it's useful to consider the alternatives. They are, in order

A) One is only poor if one chooses to be.

B) One is only poor if he chooses to be.

C) One is only poor if she chooses to be.

D) One is only poor if they choose to be.

The first is the grammatically correct version, but it is very formal, and the repeated use of "one" is hardly ever found in common speech. Also, it doesn't scan well with the melody, since it adds another syllable at just the wrong place.

The next two are also technically correct, but each limits the gender of the subject. Of course, you can always fall back on the older use of "he" as the universal pronoun, but that has distinctly fallen out of favor. Likewise the problem of the added syllable.

The last is not, technically, correct, since "one" is singular and "they" is plural, but it is the sort of construction an informal voice might use to avoid the problems in the other three choices. And it fits the meter of the tune as well.

  • ...the repeated use of "one" is hardly ever found in common speech. The Queen would almost certainly say it that way - but then I suppose she isn't "common". But there are plenty of common people in Britain, like me, who would say one is only poor if one chooses to be. Though you wouldn't find many who would subscribe to such a boorish notion. – WS2 Apr 25 '17 at 7:01

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