An Editorial Rant – The Singular “Their” and “They” 10


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:

The Singular “Their,” Part 1

CommaQueen1

The Singular ‘Their,” Part 2

CommaQueen2

 

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?



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10 thoughts on “An Editorial Rant – The Singular “Their” and “They”

  • Sharon Lippincott

    Funny how we each have different tolerance levels for like this. On a scale of 1 to 10, this one is maybe a 4.5 for me to hear or read in published work. But I agree our writing will be stronger if we avoid these constructions and follow your rewrite suggestions. Another possibility is to switch to “a” as in “someone left A mess in the kitchen” or leave out the pronoun, as in “… and should clean it up.”

    You spurred me to do a little research on everyone and everybody. Since the word “every” is collective, my ear hears these words as collective plurals, so “they/their” sounds right. Maybe that’s why this rock in the grammar road is only a 4.5 for me. I learned that purists do designate “everyone” as singular, for reasons that escape me, but plenty of others agree that it swings both ways. On the other hand, “someone” is definitely singular.

    But why take a chance? I think of these write-arounds as a fun puzzle to solve. Thanks for spreading it out on the table.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Yes, people do have different levels of tolerance for grammatical issues like this one. I like your suggestion to switch to “a” when appropriate. And yes, I think that “everybody” is technically singular, it is often used in a plural context and therefore sounds right to our ears.

      I think that’s how I look at it — as a creative puzzle. Thanks for contributing to the conversation.

  • Lauren Ross

    Wow! I am surprised, shocked really, to read this piece on the use of they/them framed exclusively as a question of grammar, with no reference to people who identify as gender ambiguous and prefer they/them pronouns for themselves. I come down firmly on the side of respecting everyone’s preferences as to the names and pronouns that we use to refer to them. Changing the way that we hear and use theythem as either plural or singular not only supports the human rights of those who identify as gender ambiguous, but is a step toward freeing our own minds from the bondage of binary gender.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Hi Lauren, and thank you for joining the conversation. I am approaching this from a purely grammatical/editorial perspective that has nothing to do with preference, because the discussion is about pronoun usage when we don’t know the gender and/or preference of the person referred to. And it points out the lack of a gender-neutral, singular pronoun in the English language.

      At one point in my drafts for this blog post, I had a paragraph discussing the introduction of gender-neutral pronouns, such as “zie,” but I eventually cut that part because I felt I didn’t know enough about its history or usage to address it correctly. The 2nd Comma Queen video discusses the gender issue in detail, though she doesn’t really provide an answer to the problem.

      The problem with insisting on the use of “they” or “them” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun, is that we would then end up with sentences such as “A student went to the store and met a friend while they was there (the “was” referring to the singular student). If I write, “A student went to the store and met a friend while they were there,” the “they” would be assumed to refer to both the student and the friend.

      Since “they/”their” are plural, that just doesn’t work. I still need a gender-neutral pronoun that works in the singular context. Ideally, we could come up with a singular pronoun that we would use in all situations. “A student went to the store and met a friend while zie was there.” or “Terry went to the store and met a friend while zie was there.”‘

      Hopefully, in the near future, we’ll be able to come up with a word that is easily adopted and incorporated into our language. One which does not discriminate or isolate any particular gender group.

  • Alex Gino

    I wish respecting my existence and the existence of other nonbinary people were more important than your comfort and sense of normalcy. Language always has ambiguity. (e.g. The word “you” encompasses both the singular and the plural, but you don’t hear people proclaiming the need to bring back thee.) To single out the singular-they is frankly transphobic.

    The fact that you acknowledge in comments that you cannot speak to “zir” and other invented pronouns should be a sign that you should take a cue from those of us who have done the study and work. New pronouns are not linguistically “addable” to a language we already speak, but adapting words we already have is natural and human as all get-out. And linguistics trumps grammar, every time.

    So basically, get over it. Language evolves to meet human needs. I need and deserve a pronoun, and asking me to create clumsy, awkward sentences and rely on the passive voice to soothe your ear is self-focused and frankly, small-minded.

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Dear Alex (and Lauren),

      For me, this discussion was and continues to be a simple intellectual and non-emotional discussion of the correct use of plural vs singular pronouns, and has nothing to do with gender identity or expression. I’ve been very surprised and even taken aback by the twist this conversation has taken, and I’ve had to take some time to think about my response.

      I agree that we need a singular gender-neutral pronoun. I agree that it is difficult to add new pronouns to any language (I think I said as much in my post) and that adapting words we already have is the way in which language naturally evolves over time. But I don’t understand how this discussion has anything to do with respecting the existence of trans and/or nonbinary people.

      If you knew me you would know that I embrace and respect all gender expressions and identities and believe that humanity encompasses a range of gender and sexuality (i.e., we are not binary by nature). And though I do identify as female, I am about as far from transphobic as a person can be. However, I also fully admit that I don’t have a lot of knowledge or personal experience regarding this issue. So if you want to call me inexperienced or ignorant, that would be closer to the truth. Rather than yelling at me and accusing me of phobias and lack of respect, which assumes I know and understand your point of view, wouldn’t it be better to educate me and help me understand?

      Until Lauren’s comment, I had never heard that anyone has requested to be called “they” or “them” as a preferred pronoun. Is this true? Do you want me to refer to you in the third person as “they”? If so, I am happy to do so. However, this still does not solve the singular vs plural problem.

      Even the use of “you” as both singular and plural can be confusing at times, though presumably in this case your readers knows whether you’re addressing a group or a single person because they are present. Still, we are often compelled to clarify with “you all.”

      Are you and Lauren suggesting that, in order to respect everyone’s gender expression, we replace the use of gendered pronouns with the word “they”? So that we always use “they” instead of “he” or “she” when we don’t know the gender, or gender identity, of the person written about?

      If I write “they entered the store,” I will still have to clarify in one way or another whether I am writing about one person or many. For me, that is way more awkward than adopting a new pronoun. Zie would be clearer and easier and more specific.

      So, Alex, I agree — you do need and deserve a pronoun. How do you propose we solve this problem? How do you want to be referred to in third person? How do you think we should work to change our language to be open at a basic level to nonbinary thinking, while at the same time communicating clearly?

  • Sharon M Hart

    Thank you for ranting on one of my personal irritants. You presented your case well and I appreciate it. You asked for my opinion; here it is. Most of the time, I will change the antecedent when I find a sentence has wandered into the “their” trap. Usually I will allow one “his or hers” (although the organizer in me is tempted to write the phrase in alphabetical order – hers or his.)

    Thank you for sharing.