Steve Osborne

What is wrong with this sentence?

The following sentence does not look or sound right to me, but I can't pinpoint the problem and don't know how to make it better.

If someone is causing you stress, you need skills to handle both them and you

Grammatical experts, please help. Any suggestions for improvement?

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3 Answers

Bridget Holland

There are two things which might be niggling you.

The first is the mismatch of singular and plural which Gill mentioned.  (As a side note in relation to Micha's comment, in the old days the masculine pronoun was inclusively to encompass female 'someones' as well, but modern sensibilities do not allow that, so the grammatical mismatch is now much more acceptable.  Even if grammatical sticklers like me don't like it.)

The other possible cause of concern is a wonderful thing called zeugma.  Using the same verb in one sentence with two different meanings.  So, handling someone who is causing you stress actually means something different from handling yourself - how you interact with someone as opposed to how you control feelings.
The classic example of this is in a song called 'Have some madeira, m'dear' by Swann and Flanders. '..he put out the the cat, the wine, his cigar and the lamps'.  Works well in comedy, less well for serious writing.  Steve, you picked it up subconsciously in your rewording.

Steve Osborne

Steve Osborne , director at Smarthinking

Thanks to all you grammatical experts for your clarifying comments.... read more
Thanks to all you grammatical experts for your clarifying comments.
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Micha Wotton

Micha Wotton , Head of Development at SavvySME

While not strictly correct, using 'them' in the singular sense is acceptable (and in common use) since there is no other non-gender-specific third-person singular reference, and alternatives are more awkward. In this case the singular  'someone' is enough context to understand that 'them' is also singular. Other examples might be "If someone calls for me, tell them I'll call back" or "If you see someone struggling to carry a load, give them a hand".

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Phil Khor

Phil Khor , Founder at SavvySME

Great brain teaser on an Easter weekend! Thanks Steve. I'm by no means an expert but would love to have a go. 

How about this? "There are skills to help you handle stress, including dealing with those who are causing you stress."

Gill Walker

Gill Walker , Owner Director, Principal CRM Business Consultant at Opsis

The grammatical problem is the 'someone' and the 'them'. Grammatically it is wrong because someone is singular and them is plural. But the obvious correction ... read more
The grammatical problem is the 'someone' and the 'them'. Grammatically it is wrong because someone is singular and them is plural. But the obvious correction ie 'If someone is causing you stress, you need skills to handle both him/her and you' is awkward. It is certainly possible to just use him for example 'If someone is causing you stress, you need skills to handle both him and you' but that assumes that the stressor is male which some people do not like. The better solution is to replace the 'someone' with 'person' which gives 'If someone is causing you stress, you need skills to handle both the person and you' or perhaps 'If someone is causing you stress, you need skills to handle both the stressor and you'. The above options all leave the sentence pretty much as written, however, there are also many ways to rephrase the sentence, as Phil has shown, so avoiding the clash between 'someone' and the 'them'. English is chellenging in this point as we do not fully use gender, so when it arises, when talking about a person it often raises this point. If the sentence used almost anyother noun rather than someone, we would use the pronoun 'it', eg 'If a dog is causing you stress, you need skills to handle both it and you' but because it is a person using 'it' does not feel right and using him/her feels awkward. This is why we use the plural, which is strictly wrong, but avoids the gender clash. This sort of - someone to dog - subsitution often illuminates where the problem lies and can be a useful trick when solving grammatical problems.
Steve Osborne

Steve Osborne , director at Smarthinking

Thanks Phil and Gill for your astute observations. I solved it by rewording thus: If someone is causing you stress, you need skills to deal with the person a... read more
Thanks Phil and Gill for your astute observations. I solved it by rewording thus: If someone is causing you stress, you need skills to deal with the person and to handle your feelings. Which got the point across with greater clarity, I think.
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