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This sentence is a TOEFL practice exercise, under the title of word choice:

When a person is arrested, the cops must let him make one telephone call.
What is wrong in this sentence?

A. the cops

B. let

C. him

D. telephone call

Actually, I have no idea about the correct answer (and I don't have the answer key). I see the sentence correct as it is. Can anyone please help? Thank you.

  • As Edward Bernard said, the sentence has no grammatical errors. However, if I remember my SAT/TOEFL prep books, those tests don't like ambiguity in sentences. So, their complaint is likely about "him" because you have not made it crystal clear whom you are referring to. The test would prefer, "... must let the arrested person make one telephone call". There's a stylistic topic of pronoun antecedence that covers this. – urnonav Sep 5 at 18:44
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The sentence is correct US English usage. I see two possible issues. "The cops" is an impolite term. "The police" would be a better word choice. "Him" is grammatically correct, and can refer to male or female in that context. Another option is to use "they" instead of "him" to refer to a person of unspecified gender. The Chicago Manual of Style discusses this here: https://cmosshoptalk.com/2017/04/03/chicago-style-for-the-singular-they/

So... I would pick "the cops" as the wrong word choice. It's grammatically correct but not the best word choice.

  • 1
    I would just like to point out that use of "they" as a singular pronoun is not universal. There are other prominent style guides that recommend against use of "they" in the singular person. There is good reason for that camp too. Consider "When police officers arrest a person, they are allowed one phone call.". If "they" is strictly plural, we are saying the officers are allowed one call. If "they" can be singular, it is ambiguous who is allowed the one call. – urnonav Sep 5 at 18:38

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