Here’s a sentence from a piece about David Foster Wallace at the The New Yorker website. The books in question are Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Oblivion :
Both books have fans, but I think it’s safe to say that no twenty-year-old will ever stick either of them in his or her backpack alongside Infinite Jest when they go trekking in Nepal.The shift from “his or her” to a singular “they” is awkward. Sticking with singular pronouns — “his or her backpack when he or she goes trekking” — would be awkward too. The sentence needs rethinking. Or as we say in east-central Illinois, the sentence needs rethought:
Both books have fans, but I think it’s safe to say that no twenty-year-old will ever stick either of them in a backpack alongside Infinite Jest when trekking in Nepal.I’d go further:
Each book has fans, but I doubt that a twenty-year-old will pack either book alongside Infinite Jest for a trek through Nepal.I’ve removed the boilerplate “I think it’s safe to say,” reduced “stick either of them in a backpack” to “pack,” and made the work of packing precede the trek. And why “either book”? Look at the work “either of them” does in the original sentence:
Both books have fans, but I think it’s safe to say that no twenty-year-old will ever stick either of them . . . .Having noticed that glitch, I find it impossible to un-notice it. Adding the word “book” keeps those fans out of the backpack.
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[I’ve tried to set a good example by replacing quotation marks with italics for the title Infinite Jest . This post is no. 63 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]