A Person Is Not a “They.” Neither Is an Army.

By Guest Author

So you want to be politically correct, you want to be inclusive, and you would never assume that every nurse and every teacher in the world is a “she.” Right?

Right.

But sometimes this worthy thought leads us to perform some very clumsy gymnastics. Consider this passage from a guide for a doctor’s front office staff:

Show the patient how to use their medicine.

Does this patient have three heads with three mouths through which to ingest medications? Or maybe the patient is using a medication produced by several Big Pharma companies?

We can see the impulse behind this absurdity: whoever wrote this document didn’t want to suggest that every patient in the practice was a “he.” Or a “she,” unless the doc’ was a gynecologist. But this good intention led to a moment of bad grammar: pronouns need to agree with their nouns.

We have several alternatives that honor our desire for inclusiveness without sliding into the ridiculousness. One obvious strategy is simply to make the noun plural:

Show patients how to use their medicine.

Another is to change the pronoun (his, her, its) to an article (the, a, an):

Show the patient how to use the medicine.

Or, if it works in the context, we can change the singular “medicine” to the plural:

Show the patient how to use medicines.

Each of these approaches allows the writer to make sense without offending anyone’s sensibilities.

Remember: in U.S. English, collective nouns are singular:

Zappit Electric just raised its rates. (Not “their rates”)
An army travels on its stomach. (Not “their stomach”)
The jury returned its verdict. (Not “their verdict”)

Not so in the Queen’s English: Brits see collective nouns as plural (e.g., “The jury returned their verdict”). But when you’re writing for a U.S. publisher, corporation, government agencie, and similar entities, take singular verbs and singular pronouns.

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31 Responses to “A Person Is Not a “They.” Neither Is an Army.”

  • Bill Sterling

    Great insights. Sometimes the PC can create a grammatical nightmare. Thanks for the insights.
    Bill Sterling

  • rosbif

    Your contention that “Brits see collective nouns as plural” is not entirely true. A collective noun in BrE can take either the singular or the plural, depending on whether the members of the group are seen as acting separately or collectively.

  • Julie

    Using “their” as a singular possessive tops my list of pet peeves, yet I fear it’s on its way to acceptance. Anyone want to coin a euphonic gender-neutral singular possessive?

  • Sarah Turner

    This is a tricky one. The use of the word “their” is used frequently now so as to avoid the he/she debate. “Ensure your child brings their lunch with them” rather than “Ensure your child brings his/her lunch with them”. Yes, it’s incorrect but is so widely used that it’s now acceptable.

    Re teams, groups etc. We (Brits) actually use the singular – mostly! So I’d say Jury is, army is, team is etc. The BBC, however, always makes teams and groups plural. So I’d write England is winning the cricket. The BBC tend to write England are winning the cricket.

    Staff should be singular “Our staff is working hard..” But that looks and sounds so odd that it’s very often written as “staff are…”

  • Nicholas Rose

    Sorry but I disagree.

    In some cases, the use of he/she, (s)he or he or she (and derived terms, such as him/her, etc.) becomes very cumbersome if there is a lot of repetition, particularly in legal texts, where the pronoun may be required to cover the three cases of a man, a woman and an entity such as a company or an organisation. In such cases, the pronoun “they” (and derived terms) may, and in some cases should, be used, together with corresponding plural forms of verbs, even though the third person singular is meant and even if this leads to use of both singular and plural forms for the same subject in one sentence (e.g. “The sender guarantees that they have complied with…).
    See http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/page/heshethey/he-or-she-versus-they and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they . I have also found an authoritative website advocating the use of “they” etc. in legal texts but am unable to track it down again right now.

  • Nicholas Rose

    Following comment submitted 10 minutes ago:
    I have found the website I was looking for (on the subject of the use of the singular “They” in a legal context).
    See http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/dept-min/pub/legis/n41.html and http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/dept-min/pub/legis/n39.html

    best regards

  • Rebecca

    I’ve made this faux pas a few times. Thank you for the reminder.

    You can be kind and respectful and still use proper grammar.

  • Ed

    Daily writing tips and reminders are valuable.Today’s tip serves as one example why i subscribe to this blog.

  • suz

    How fortunate you are, that you can circumvent the gender question by using the plural, says a German reader with a smile on her face.
    PS: I like your blog

  • Angela Kroeger

    I disagree with this point. “They” has been used as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun since the time of Chaucer. It is not new to the English language, and if it was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for us.

    Every attempt to introduce an alternative gender-neutral pronoun into English has failed, because native speakers intuitively know that we already have one, regardless of what the textbooks say. Why try to teach oneself an awkward construction like “hirs” (which I’ve heard proposed and rejected) when “they” is already clear and comprehensible?

    Somehow we accept that “you” could be either singular or plural depending on context. Why does the singular “they” invoke such a strong reaction, when educated speakers and writers have been using it for centuries?

    I’ve read many articles on the singular “they,” but here is a link to one of the most informative.
    http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2009/09/10/singular-they-and-the-many-reasons-why-its-correct/

  • Lawrence Miller

    “Man” is and always has been the one, simplest, all inclusive word that works as the common word for the species homo sapiens. Just to make sure I wasn’t losing my marbles all of a sudden, I looked up “man” in the dictionary. Here are the first four meanings of the word today according to the particular tome I used:

    1. an adult male person, as distinguished from a boy or a woman.
    2. a member of the species Homo sapiens or all the members of this species collectively, without regard to sex: prehistoric man.
    3.
    the human individual as representing the species, without reference to sex; the human race; humankind: Man hopes for peace, but prepares for war.
    4.
    a human being; person: to give a man a chance; When the audience smelled the smoke, it was every man for himself.

    I think meaning number two takes care of it. It is a time-tested solution to a nonexistent problem.

    Now, please tell me again: what part of man is it that is so hard to understand?

    I suppose that, if one were sickeningly addicted to using big words where a smaller one will better serve, one might choose to use the words homo sapiens rather than man to collectively refer to our species. Then again, there is another solution that should work well and it is only one letter longer than the time-tested word: man.

    Here is my solution to this nonexistent problem: This word incorporates all three of the sexual mixes available to us in today’s humanistic correct world. Take the three of the words he, she, it, scramble them, select an identifying letter or two from each, and you have sh/e/t, written shet, and pronounced…oh well, I am sure you know how to pronounce my new all inclusive noun for man.

    [H]e said: Let us make man to our image and likeness… And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them—Genesis 1:27-28 (DRV). So you can see from that quote that the word man has a storied history.

    So, there you have it. No more linguistic gymnastics. If you mean man, or homo sapiens, or shet, then say man, or homo sapiens, or shet. If you mean something else; let us know.

  • Levi Montgomery

    Please allow the ugly, misshapen, legless, armless zombie rule against singular “they,” “them,” “themselves,” etc, to die the simple, quiet death it has sought for so long.

    At the risk of getting caught in the spam blocker, I’m going to include just three of the many, many links I have at hand on this subject:

    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003572.html
    http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?cat=27
    http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2009/09/10/singular-they-and-the-many-reasons-why-its-correct/

  • Cecily

    To me (A Brit), “Show the patient how to use their medicine” is a perfectly normal sentence.

    As Guest Author notes, this issue is primarily a bugbear in AmE. In the UK, it is common to use “they” and “their” for singular people of unspecified gender, and it rarely raises any comment, let alone hackles.

    Having read around the subject quite widely, it seems undisputed that the prohibition was first documented, and probably invented by Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress who wrote a grammar book that became very popular. There is nothing wrong with that except that it didn’t reflect even educated usage at the time, before or since. Chaucer, Austen, Byron, Thackeray, Eliot, Trollope, Dickens and many others have used it routinely.

    I presume such authors did so because it was (and is) useful, widely used and unambiguous. In fact it’s so common, I expect that those who abhor it must find it very distracting reading anything other than a few newspapers that have very rigid style guides. (The PC/feminist angle is a red herring. It’s not like chairman/chairperson, but a longstanding and useful form.)

    The only grounds for objection that I can see is to avoid apparent lack of verb agreement, e.g. “The jury was [singular] out for three hours, before they [plural] reached their verdict”. But surely one can strive to avoid that without banning ALL uses of singular “they”?

  • Alexander Davis

    Two great tips in two days. Thank you!

  • Stu

    Of course the noun and pronoun agree – the pronoun has changed meaning. Where have you been?

  • Tony Hearn

    Oh dear. Chestnut time again. Let’s get a few things clear.

    The use of ‘they/them/their’ as an inclusive third person pronoun referring to a singular subject is not a novelty. It was alive and well in Shakespeare’s time. The 14th edition (1993) of The Chicago Style Manual noted “its venerable use by such writers as Addison, Austen, Chesterfield, Fielding, Ruskin, Scott, and Shakespeare”, though they note that it sparks controversy!

    Wikipedia ‘Gender Neutral Pronouns” says: “This usage of the word “they” is often thus called the singular “they”. The singular “they” is widely used and accepted in Britain, Australia, and North America in conversation and, often, in at least informal writing as well”.

    Under ‘Singular They’ it gives: “Since at least the 15th century, “they” (though still used with verbs conjugated in the plural, not the singular), “them”, “themself”, “themselves”, and “their” have been used, in an increasingly more accepted fashion, as singular pronouns”

    It is so useful in avoiding clumsy gender-sensitive usage and I can see no reason why it will not continue nor why attempts to halt it will not be doomed! So, Sarah Turner, fear not: it is not ‘incorrect’. It may not be pretty, but that is another matter!

    Secondly, the singular/plural use of group nouns like ‘the team’ the government’ etc. The British use, at least, is clear from our grammar and style books. If the noun refers to a group acting as a group it is used with a singular verb. If it refers to a group of individuals it takes a plural verb. E.g:

    The team takes this match really seriously. (I.e. collectively.)

    But: The team are going to be having a few drinks tonight (i.e.not all at exactly the same moment, nor the same drinks, nor even perhaps at the same bar).

  • brooklyn

    I generally try to say, “Show the patient how to use his/her medicine.” I don’t see the problem with that and it isn’t cumbersome or annoying to type. But, as a student, I would say that I hear and see the use of “their and they” in this context.

    Lawrence Miller, I believe you are missing the point of this article with your suggestion of “man,” because that doesn’t work for any application of this “issue.” Man is a noun, she and he are pronouns. One would never say, “Show the patient how to use man medicine.” Does that even make sense? Or are you suggesting that the pronoun “he” be applied to all persons?

    Further, the definition of “man” of course includes a representation of all people, regardless of sex because of its use as a representation of all people, regardless of sex in a context where the masculine/male is favored and considered the default (i.e., more important).

    Taking a simplistic look at the definition of the noun, one could say that it’s a fair choice for a sex-neutral noun…but it is because of its historical context that the pronoun (and noun) issue come up.

  • Kathryn

    Cecily and Tony–most interesting, thank you!

    I’ll probably continue to reconstruct my sentences to avoid having to use a singular pronoun when the person referred to could be of either gender (which is much the best solution in most cases–there are multiple ways of expressing almost any thought), primarily to avoid wearing political arguments. But it is good to know that if I slip and use “they” or “them” I will be in such excellent company.

  • Levi Montgomery

    I’m afraid my earlier comment was eaten by the spam munchers. Any possibility you could dig it out? Thanks!

  • Simon Kewin

    I must say I agree with Cecily and others – I see very little problem in saying “Show the patient how to use their medicine”. It sounds absolutely fine to me and is certainly not an “absurdity”. Perhaps it’s not strictly logical, but I’m not convinced language has to be logical. If it was, we’d have to get rid of a great deal of the English language …

  • Eleanor K. Sommer

    I beg to differ. “Their” as a gender neutral singular pronoun has some history, and at least a few scholars contend that the rule against using “their” in relation to singular nouns was some inappropriate understanding of Latin rules of grammar overlaid onto to English. I mean to do more research on this subject, and when I do, I will try to remember to send my findings to this blog. In the meantime, here is at least one source, although the facts therein have not been verified: http://www.crossmyt.com/hc/linghebr/austheir.html.

    Language is fluid. Its nature is to change. We are more than due for relief from the cumbersome his/her issue.

  • Madeleine Kolb

    I tend to agree with Kathryn’s comment,

    “I’ll probably continue to reconstruct my sentences to avoid having to use a singular pronoun when the person referred to could be of either gender…primarily to avoid wearing political arguments.”

    But often the gender of the person referred to is obvious, and yet a writer uses the pronoun “their.” For example, “Does it annoy you when your husband leaves their dirty clothes on the floor?” This makes no sense to me.

  • Lawrence Miller

    Brooklyn, you are correct. I jumped on the right horse but I fought the wrong battle with my comments.

    And, correct again: “He,” in my humble opinion, serves the purpose of a gender inclusive pronoun as well today as it has for centuries. Why change? We are, after all, the species of man, so “he” fulfills the need well.

    Thank you for noticing and thank you for the correction.

  • Lawrence Miller

    Brooklyn, you are correct. I jumped on the right horse but I fought the wrong battle with my comments.

    And, correct again: In my humble opinion, when called for, “he” serves the purpose of a gender inclusive pronoun as well today as it has for centuries. We are, after all, the species of man, so “he” fulfills the need well. And “they” and “their” continue to serve well when called for by the context.

    Thank you for noticing and thank you for the correction.

  • uday

    In the following sentence, is it fine to use the word “supports” instead of support:

    Multiple Minimum Supports-Based Frequent Pattern Mining Algorithms

    If not the case, how should the above sentence be?

  • Peter

    In some cases, the use of he/she, (s)he or he or she (and derived terms, such as him/her, etc.) becomes very cumbersome if there is a lot of repetition

    The correct pronoun in that case is “he”; how is that ever “cumbersome”?

  • Peter

    Further, the definition of “man” of course includes a representation of all people, regardless of sex because of its use as a representation of all people, regardless of sex in a context where the masculine/male is favored and considered the default (i.e., more important).

    It has nothing to do with “masculine/male” being “more important”. The grammatical feature we call “gender” has absolutely nothing to do with the physical feature properly called “sex” (but often mislabelled “gender”). Grammatical “masculine” has nothing to do with “maleness”. (In Old English, the word “woman” was masculine, but I don’t think they confused women with men. [In ancient Greece, where they did :), the words for “man” and “woman” are different genders]). The terms we use for gender are unfortunate; it would have been better if the ancient grammarians had used “red”, “blue” and “green” or “apple”, “banana” and “strawberry”, or something, instead of “masculine”, “feminine” and “neuter”; much less confusing, and we wouldn’t have people running around telling us it was somehow sexist to use red pronouns to refer to females… (and the word “gender” would never have been extended to people)

  • Doug Murray

    Here in the South, we’ve fought this battle for centuries over another pronoun: it’s plain that “you” is singular so you should distinguish the plural as “y’all” (never “you all”, by the way). Obviously, we’ve lost that war, too.

    But if “you” is correct as either singular or plural, what could be wrong with treating “they” the same way? It’s definitely superior to cumbersome “he/she” and “him or her” constructs, and rewording the whole sentence is what we in the IT world call a “work-around”.

  • Doug Murray

    As an example for my previous comment, reword Guest Author’s example to read “Show you how to use your medicine”, perfectly acceptable whether addressing an individual or a group. Change that from second person to third and “Show them how to use their medicine” works just as well regardless of number.

  • Peter

    Doug Murray: Actually, “you” is plural. The proper singular form is “thou”, but that’s fallen out of favour nowadays (under French influence, which uses the plural as a polite singular; “thou” came to only be used in informal speech or as a form of insult)

    I kinda like “y’all”, though, and occasionally use it when it’s important to make the distinction (I could use “thou” in the other direction, but people would look at me funny…and it sounds odd if you don’t use archaic verb forms to go with it, if thou knowest what I mean)

  • Bill Davis

    If anyone doesn’t like singular “they,” they should give up the prescriptivist whining. Languages change, and actually, this is a change back to a form better accepted in time of old.

    This use of “they” has been common and sounding normal for my entire life and I did not grow up in a place where you might expect substandard speech.

    And Peter, there are two singular forms of “you” in older English (thou and thee). And technically, “y’all” is singular in the South. For plural, it’s “all y’all.”

    In California we use “you guys” for plural =) and that brings up another question: what is the possessive form of “you guys”? What do all ya’ll think? If someone wants to use the possessive, which form should they use? *smile*

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