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  • Using X and Y is generally good practice, but there are also cases where it makes things worse or at least gives nothing.
  • Using X and Y is generally good practice, but there are also cases where they make things worse or at least give nothing.

X and Y are nouns.

Which sentence is more accurate?


The real case:

(The real case is related to computer programming; and so it could be hard to understand by people who aren't developers)

Guard statements

Using them is generally good practice, but there are also cases where it …​

  • makes the code less readable …​

    here goes an example
    
  • or at least gives nothing.

    here goes an example
    
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  • 1
    Are you talking about the act of using X and Y making things worse, or using X and Y making things worse? The effect will probably be the same, in which case it doesn't matter whether you refer to the act as "it" or X and Y as "they". [Note that you use "Using X and Y is..." so there is presumably a single act.]
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 10, 2020 at 19:40
  • @AndrewLeach Good question, thanks. This is what confuses me; I cannot clearly distinguish these two things. It seems it is act, but I'm not sure. I added a real-life example just now.
    – john c. j.
    Sep 10, 2020 at 19:52
  • Your real-world case only uses the singular forms of the verbs, that is it has the same structure as your first option. Are you asking whether the section on Guard Statements (which is presumably taken from a technical book, a magazine or a training manual) is correct in using that structure or are you asking something else?
    – BoldBen
    Sep 11, 2020 at 4:12
  • @BoldBen Yes, "the real case" reflect the first option. To reflect the second option, it would be "Using them is generally good practice, but there are also cases where they make the code less readable or or at least gives nothing." The word they stands for guard statements. The word it (when it used in place of "they") stands for the act of using. This is a technical manual I'm working on. I'm wondering which sentence to choose: the sentence with "it" or the sentence with "they".
    – john c. j.
    Sep 11, 2020 at 9:45
  • In the second case (with they), it should read or at least give nothing. Sep 11, 2020 at 12:25

2 Answers 2

2

Either version could be right, and the two versions have slightly different meanings. I think the singular version works better.

The subject of the sentence is "using," a singular noun, as further indicated by the fact that you say "is" (generally good practice) not "are" as you would if the subject were plural.

The pronoun (either it or they) is not defined but must refer to some antecedent specified earlier in the sentence.

In the version with "it" the pronoun refers to something singular - that would be "using X and Y", a singular noun.

In the version with "they" the pronoun must refer to something plural - that would be "X and Y".

I think the singular version is better because 1) then the pronoun refers to the subject of the first part of the sentence, which seems more natural and easy to parse, and 2) then the two linked parts of the sentence are more parallel, and both parts are talking about the same thing. So it is a more elegant and less clunky sentence that way.

But, I'd still say, the other version is not grammatically incorrect, and it has a slightly different meaning - that X and Y make things worse, as opposed to using X and Y makes things worse.

3

This is a great question, because the difference between the two grammatical structures is subtle but conveys distinctly different meaning.

I'll stick with your symbolic examples as they focus on the meaning of the grammar:

  1. Using X and Y is generally good practice, but there are also cases where it makes things worse or at least gives nothing.

  2. Using X and Y is generally good practice, but there are also cases where they make things worse or at least give nothing.

In 1., the singular pronoun "it" refers to the singular noun phrase "Using X and Y". When you say "it makes things worse" you mean the whole process of "using-x-and-y" makes things worse.

In 2., the plural pronoun "they" refers to the two discrete nouns within the noun phrase "Using X and Y." In other words, it isn't the whole process that makes things worse, it's using just those specific values for X and Y that makes things worse.

So they are both grammatically correct, but because they mean different things, the right choice is the one that says what you really mean.

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