Everybody Must Make Up Their Own Mind About “Their”

By Maeve Maddox

The DWT Forum is enjoying a lively discussion of the problem of what do do about the political need to make writing “gender neutral” without writing such ugly constructions as s/he, he/she, he or she.

Some readers still support the use of “he” in a general sense as was the practice until it came to be seen as a mark of patriarchal oppression.

Others defend the use in the title of this post as having historical precedent.

In general we recognize that using their with a singular antecedent is “wrong,” but we instinctively want to do it. Does that make us bad writers or bad people?

Of course not.

The use of “their” with a singular antecedent drives grammarians wild, but it is a living impulse in the language and it will triumph.

Here’s what the OED has to say about it:

[“their” is] [o]ften used in relation to a singular n. or pronoun denoting a person, after each, every, either, neither, no one, every one, etc. Also so used instead of ‘his or her’, when the gender is inclusive or uncertain. (Not favoured by grammarians.)

And here are a few examples the OED gives from the works of writers whose quality of writing is not usually denied:

1749 FIELDING Tom Jones VII. xiv, Every one in the House were in their Beds.
1771 GOLDSM. Hist. Eng. III. 241 Every person..now recovered their liberty.
1845 SYD. SMITH Wks. (1850) 175 Every human being must do something with their existence.
1848 THACKERAY Vanity Fair xli, A person can’t help their birth.
1858 BAGEHOT Lit. Studies (1879) II. 206 Nobody in their senses would describe Gray’s ‘Elegy’ as [etc.].
1898 G. B. SHAW Plays II. Candida 86 It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses.

I have to confess that I’m one of those writers who rewrites such sentences by putting everything into the plural, but I may pull in my horns when it comes to castigating those of my colleagues who decide to go with the flow.

The spirit of English has a mind of its own. It despises such grammarian-inspired constructions as

It is I.

and

One never knows, does one?

but it doesn’t at all mind

Many an explorer lost their way.

Meanwhile the battle continues in the abodes of English lovers such as DailyWritingTips.

Visit the Forum and enter the fray!

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14 Responses to “Everybody Must Make Up Their Own Mind About “Their””

  • Ginkgo100

    I will often just “pick one” and stick with it. In fact, I just did this today on my blog. I was talking about B. F. Skinner, who is a “he”, so I used “she” for the other person to decrease ambiguity.

    One of my baby books does the same thing when referring to the baby, alternating “he” and “she” with each chapter.

    “Their” is in, but I find that often, a “he” or “she” sounds better.

  • Michael

    I’ve been using it as a gender-neutral singular for as long as I can remember. And I will continue to do so until we come up with something else or decide that it’s fine to do.

  • Mikael Høilund

    Yes! Finally a reputable source whom I can quote as supporting this usage when defending it! I really can’t see why grammarians, who of all people should know that cringing over a use is no defense for its invalidation, hate it so much. As you say, it’s a living language, and it really is superior; the dinosaur says so!

    Thank you.

  • Eric Rochester

    That’s great. In the oral exams for my PhD, I mentioned in passing that I thought that “their” would probably become the accepted gender neutral pronoun eventually. One professor looked horrified and another tried very hard not to look bothered. I wish I had known at the time about the quotations you list above to buttress my point.

    That said, I generally either use “she” or alternate between “he” and “she”. Old prejudices die hard. Particularly grammatical ones.

    Eric

  • Graham Strong

    Their is not an answer.

    But seriously, I wish someone would come up with gender-neutral solution. Of course, there is no “high-court” of the English language. The closest is the OED in my mind, but they are reporters of English, not innovators. So that “someone” does not exist.

    This just might be one of those unsolvable dilemmas. There is no possible way that you can satisfy everyone. My answer is the same as yours: pluralize everything. It’s grammatically correct, and avoids the whole his/her issue altogether.

    ~Graham

  • Mari

    Using their as a gender indifferent pronoun absolutely rubs me the wrong way. It’s worse than nails on a chalkboard. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with “his”.

  • PreciseEdit

    We see this issue so often that we have already written a couple of articles about it: “Sexist Language and Bad Grammar” and “Everyone Is Single,” both of which are available on the Precise Edit website.

    I’m starting to believe that using a plural pronoun to refer to a single subject is the most common issue we have to correct. For example, we regularly see sentences such as, “If a loved one suddenly starts slurring their speech, it could be a stroke.” This sample sentence has a number of problems, but the one in question is the use of “their” with “a loved one.”

    Since we dislike “his or her,” we generally recommend more fundamental revisions, such as “A loved one whose speech is suddenly slurring could be experiencing a stroke.”

    Great topic. We look forward to reading others’ comments.

  • Mikael Høilund

    PreciseEdit:

    The problem with re-phrasing the sentence from the ground up just to avoid using the gender-neutral pronoun is that it can lead to clumsy sentences, or remove the “punch” from it. I am no professional writer, but I can imagine that “if a loved one suddenly starts slurring their speech …” catches the ear of a radio listener than “a loved one whose speech is suddenly slurring …”

    And exactly in situations such as radio advertising, you really only have that option short of using one of the (ugh) artificial gender-neutral pronouns (e.g. e took er hat and left er house (I can’t remember the specifics)), because sexist language simply isn’t an option in this day and age.

  • PreciseEdit

    Mikael- Hurray for your use of the double parentheses! Almost no one dares do this in his or her writing anymore. (Or: “Few people dare do this in their writing anymore.” (See how we easily avoided the number problem?))

    Fundamental changes don’t have to be clumsy–just careful and creative, which we hope writers are, regardless.

    Regarding the title of the post: This issue really refers to writers, not everybody, so the title could be (correctly), “Writers need to make up their mind about “their.” Again-a fundamental change, and one that more accurately describes the topic than the original.

    Regarding our previous example: “Suddenly slurring speech could be a sign that your loved one is experiencing a stroke.” 🙂

  • mike

    I have no problem with the usage of “their.” Sometimes, however, I will try to switch it up. I have no problem using the feminine in this situation. I usually make a quick, glance of a vision in my head and stick with the gender that first appears.

    If someone completes the game, her score will appear on the leaderboards.

  • stephanie Acquah

    am pleading to help me use good grammar

  • Peter

    And exactly in situations such as radio advertising, you really only have that option short of using one of the (ugh) artificial gender-neutral pronouns (e.g. e took er hat and left er house (I can’t remember the specifics)), because sexist language simply isn’t an option in this day and age.

    Well, that’s just idiotic. The correct use of “he” as the gender-neutral pronoun is no way “sexist”. Grammatical gender has nothing to do with sex. I always want to slap people who say “she”. Variations on “they” only work when the subject is a “hidden plural” (there’s a similar grammatical construct in Latin, FWIW, where you use plural verbs with what appears to be a singular noun; I can’t remember what it’s called).

  • Mari Adkins

    :applause for Peter: I second what you said wholeheartedly, sir! Glad you’re here.

  • Cecily

    Singular they/their instead of s/he or whatever is not a PC or feminist thing but a practical acceptance of history and the fact it is useful, widely used and unambiguous.

    It is NOT grammatically incorrect. The “rule” was invented by Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress who wrote a popular grammar book, but oddly, has a stronger hold on AmE than BrE.

    Chaucer, Austen, Byron, Thackeray, Eliot, Trollope, Dickens and many others have used it routinely. Is your enjoyment ruined when you read these authors?

    If “you” can be singular or plural, why the objections to “they”?

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