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