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?


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.

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

  • 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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