Everybody Must Make Up Their Own Mind About “Their”
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.
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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