Language most shows a man; speak, that I may see thee!
—Ben Jonson

Friday, August 16, 2013

"Their" as a singular pronoun vs. "his/her"

Confused by lingering linguistic tradition?

Is using "their" in place of "his/her" good grammar?

The debate rages on among certain internet savvy elites (and stubborn fourth grade English teachers, including their pet students) concerning whether people should incorporate a neutral third person plural pronoun in their English writings in order to avoid using the masculine third person singular. Some say find a neutral, even if it is plural; others are intent on keeping it singular, even if that means both masculine and feminine get dropped in the mix together.

Huh...I bet you needed a breath after reading all that (at least your brain did)!

However, if you can relate to what I'm saying, then by all means read on.

The cultural trend among English speakers and writers has been to shy away from the general use of the masculine noun man and its pronoun his. This trend to conscientiously include both genders in formal writing is fully in place. Solutions have been to replace man with person and his with his or her. Many people have already formed a habit of using the gender-neutral pronoun their in place of his or her in everyday speech and also in writing.

"Most of what is greatest in man is called forth in response to the thwarting of his hopes by immutable obstacles..."—Bertrand Russell(1)

There is no doubt that Bert's editor would have had a problem with his style if he had been writing that today.

Well now, which is it? Should we use his or her, or should we use their? Surely there must be a correct and orderly manner for the replacement and use of words as his/her/its/their in English, is there not?

There are no grammatical rules engraven in the sky that stipulate correct writing style in all cases (much to the chagrin of some)—such that no disagreement in number or gender shall ever be permitted between a pronoun and its antecedent.

Perhaps someone will argue to the death over their preferences in these matters (we, that is, this typist, will not compete with her), while another may find her own solution in time-tested grammatical usage.

Now, I do have one brief grammatical nugget to share before ending this random post; which is that certain inflected languages tend to make no distinction between singular and plural third person pronouns in the genitive case.

Latin, which is highly esteemed among traditional grammarians, makes no distinction in the third person possessive regarding the gender or number of pronouns in relation to their nouns. Here's an example:

Agricola terram suam curat. The farmer cares for his land. Agricolae terram suam curant. The farmers care for their land. Likewise, Terra bona agricolam suam curat. The good land cares for its farmer.

In those Latin sentences, the third person possessive pronoun suam is exactly the same. It doesn't change according to the gender or number of the nouns agricola (the farmer), agricolae (the farmers) and terra bona (the good land). English noun cases do affect possessive pronouns, as in his/her/its/their. The reason the pronoun suam stayed the same in Latin is because it corresponds to the gender and number of the direct object, making that of its noun irrelevant.

Latin is not the only one. Spanish uses the same third person genitive as Latin:

La niña cuida sus libros. The girl takes care of her books. Los chicos hacen su tarea. The boys do their homework.

Again, since the pronoun corresponds to the direct object in these sentences the gender and number of the noun has no influence on it.

These two examples simply show that in some languages the third person possessive pronoun has no gender/number correspondence to its noun. This is not true of all languages, and there are, of course, languages where it would not make a bit of sense to talk that way. Nevertheless, in some languages it can be done, and in the case of English, it is being done often with the neutral form their in place of other pronouns.

So does all this mean that using their in place of his or her is always a cool thing to do? Well, no. Sometimes it may only serve to confuse readers. As we have said somewhere up top, this discussion is a matter of stylistic preference and not worth dying for.

It may make more sense in some contemporary English sentences to write things like "In wording her message, a writer has a couple of options" instead of "his message" or "their message." In fact, the feminine gender has gained so much popularity among contemporary authors that it has pretty much already replaced the common his. Bertrand Russell would have no problem with editors or audiences today if he had reworded his phrase to say something like, "Most of what is greatest in a person is called forth in response to the thwarting of her hopes by immutable obstacles..."

In my opinion, the neutral their would fit just as well in Russell's sentence, while his or her may be a little too much.

English is a beautiful language. And one of the nice things about it is that it is flexible. We can say things like "Hi guys!" to a group of ladies. Nobody throws a fit. We can also write gender neutral their in place of all that his/her awkwardness. If this doesn't work, there is always the common her to stand in for his or her. And don't forget the good old fashioned his! (as in, "One should always be mindful of his audience," etc.)

All of these gender-inclusive word choices risk miscommunication at some point with somebody; nevertheless, they each have their time and place in contemporary writing when employed skillfully.

So we conclude with a new, but old rule:

Stylistic Rule #1. Every decision shall be made on a case-by-case basis.

(1) Russell, Bertrand (2011-08-16). Our Knowledge of the External World as a Field for Scientific Method in Philosophy (Kindle Locations 392-393). Kindle Edition. 


  1. Your conclusion that we should make pronoun choices case-by-case is a sound one. I would like to add that those case-by-case decisions should be based on the ethical principle of writing and translating as inclusively as we can. So if there is no pressing reason to exclude men, women, intersex or agender people, use inclusive language, such as the singular they.

    For those who feel very sure that singular they is definitely grammatically incorrect, I recommend watching the video you included, and also reading these:

  2. Ronja,
    Thank you for your feedback and for the recommended reading.