USE OF the singular “their” and “they” drives me nuts.
There. I said it.
In case you don’t what I’m talking about, here’s an example: Someone left their mess in the kitchen. They should clean it up. Here’s another: Everyone knows they should tell the truth.
The rule is pretty simple: Use a singular pronoun with a singular antecedent and a plural pronoun with a plural antecedent. (An antecedent is just a previous reference.) So, it’s: people/they; everyone/he or everyone/she.
I know, I know…it’s common practice to use “they” in situations like those. It’s also not a new practice. It has been used by many famous authors over the years, and there are plenty of knowledgable, educated people who argue in favor of using “their” and “they” as a singular pronoun. The English language doesn’t contain a pronoun to indicate a person of indeterminate gender (“it” certainly doesn’t work). People have tried to use words, like “zie,” “zir,” etc., but, like any forced language, these words haven’t caught on with the general population.
Still, every time someone uses “their” incorrectly, it grates on me. As far as I’m concerned, writers guilty of this practice might as well be dragging their collective nails down a blackboard. I want to scream, “No, no, NO!” (Perhaps this is what comes of having an English teacher for a mother.)
So how do you finish a sentence that begins with “When a person ….” (or any other name for a person such as “student,” “homeowner,” or “citizen”) when you don’t know the gender of that person? It seems awkward to write “he or she.” Especially if you have to continue in that vein for some time.
For example, the above sentences are correctly written as: Someone left his or her mess in the kitchen. He or she should clean it up. Everyone knows he or she should tell the truth. The use of “he or she,” however, can become distracting when repeated over and over. The exception may be that if you’re writing a formal document, such as a procedure manual for use by the human resources department in your place of employment, it’s perfectly fine to use “he or she” and “him or her” throughout. The writing is already formal, so this might not be too distracting for the readers.
If you write just “he” or just “she,” the writing may be interpreted as sexist. (Someone left his mess in the kitchen. He should clean it up.) Another possible solution, the use of “S/he,” is just plain awkward.
Some people attempt to solve the problem by switching back and forth between “he” and “she.” And that can work — sometimes. I’ve used it myself, but it depends upon context. In my view this only works when you’re switching subjects, or giving instructions. If you’re writing about one subject, switching genders midstream can confuse your readers.
So what to do? Rewrite.
The easiest fix is to change the antecedent to plural. People who leave messes should clean up after themselves. All people know they should tell the truth.
I feel that I’m in good company in this opinion, and to help make my point here are links to two videos on this very topic by the New Yorker’s own Comma Queen:
What’s your opinion on the use of the plural “their”? Should every writer mind their grammar, or should every writer mind his or her grammar, or should writers mind their grammar?