Wednesday, January 05, 2011

WNW: Their As a Singular Pronoun

A reader recently called me out on using their as a singular generic pronoun. (I forget who right now; feel free to claim the comment as your own!)

The issue: What pronoun do you use in a situation where the gender of the person acting either isn't known or isn't relevant? For example:

When an employee arrives . . .

The rest of the sentence is about the employee, who must sign in. What pronoun do you use?

When an employee arrives, ____ must sign in.

At one time, writers simply used he as the generic pronoun:

When an employee arrives, he must sign in.

But eventually came the complaints of sexism. (What if the employee is female?) That's when we started seeing a lot of he or she, just to be sure we covered our bases:

When an employee arrives, he or she must sign in.

That's seriously clunky and awkward, but it's better than the other weird compromise, s/he.

Others have opted to use she instead of he. That's annoying to me as a reader, because a) it's reverse sexism and b) historically he has a far more neutral feel than she, which jumps out like a flashing red light.

(Good writing should move smoothly, without jolts or flashing red lights.)

To keep the gender thing fair, some writers alternate between he and she throughout a piece. Personally, I think that goes beyond annoying and enters the range of shoot me now.

I've seen magazines that alternate on an article level: this article uses he, and the next one uses she. Not a particularly elegant solution, but at least it doesn't have me wanting to hit something.

So the gender-neutral problem persists: English simply doesn't have a singular, gender-neutral pronoun.

Finnish does have a gender-neutral pronoun, and I have to say, it's really convenient when you see a baby but can't figure out the gender. You can totally compliment the kid without offending the parents. Too bad English doesn't have an equivalent of hän.

(Another side note: Finns often use se instead of hän . . . which means it, even when referring to people. Totally works in Finnish. Not so much in English. Can you imagine referring to your friend and saying you're going to lunch with it?)

Chicago and a lot of other style guides suggest avoiding the problem altogether. Either 1) reword the sentence so you don't need the pronoun, or 2) change the sentence so you can grammatically use the plural:

When employees arrive, they must sign in.

That works fine at times, but it's still not a solution. Sometimes a piece needs the singular, and making it plural or otherwise doing acrobatics to avoid their as singular sounds odd.

This is precisely why their is becoming increasingly accepted as the singular pronoun, at least in conversation and informal writing. I'm in the camp that accepts this usage already (obviously), although some people still foam at the mouth when they see their used this way. (Just as I foam at the mouth at infer used for imply and other losing usage battles.)

That said, if I'm writing for a professional journal or something similar, I avoid using their as a singular. You write to fit the register you want the piece to fit in. If something isn't accepted in that arena, don't use it, and no, their is not accepted as Standard English.


I believe it's just a matter of time before their is considered correct and perfectly fine to use this way. People already do, often, sometimes by accident and other times absolutely on purpose (raising my hand here).

The new rule actually reaching style guides? That may take some time, but it'll happen.

Grammar Girl agrees with me and adds that "it takes a bold, confident, and possibly reckless person to use they with a singular antecedent today."

What can I say? I live on the edge.


Susan Anderson said...

I'm always having this dilemma in my writing, and since I can't get myself EVER to use "their" as a singular pronoun (drives me nuts), I either say "he or she," change the precedent to a plural word, or say "that person," "that individual," or the like.

It's annoying. We do need a pronoun to fit the bill.


Kristina P. said...

I hadn't really ever thought about this. I always use "they" too.

Nick and Dani said...

This exact issue bothered me so much in Honors English. I wish I had this article to show to my teacher at the time. I had to conform to saying 'he' since I was being tested.

Kayeleen Hamblin said...

I'm one of those daring individuals. It seems like a great solution to a perplexing problem.

Heather of the EO said...

I love how you ended this post.
Livin' on the edge, indeed :)

Scott said...

I always say sometimes it takes a little crazy. Love the moxie. WNW is a great post. I hope you keep it up. I'm all about using 'their' as the singular pronoun. I actually have to talk myself out of using it because I know that it's not "normal."

T.J. said...


So I'm going to be one of those cool people and ask a question in your comments section.

What about the word 'that'? It seems to get a look of dismay and a thought of 'overuse' directed at it. I can see 'which' being used, but why is 'that' so wrong?

Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

We need more Finnish in our English, I think. ;)

You're totally wild, Annette! (And brilliant, too.)

Annette Lyon said...

Totally awesome, TJ!

THAT can definitely be overused, but it's not a total no-no.

I'll add this to my WNW list!

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Yay! I'm glad your shared this. It has long been a hair-pulling experience for me to know what to do. There's a gal in my writers group who would call me on this every time. I'm going to be daring from now on. :)

Anonymous said...

I think I was the one who asked the question. And I loved your reply. Thanks!

Lara Neves said...

Huh. I will admit that I am one who is driven batty by the use of they/their as a singular pronoun. But, I do get that there is not good alternative. I think maybe it only drives me nuts when the gender is obvious and people STILL say their.

Or Facebook.

Facebook always says, Lara (or whoever) has updated their profile. It drives me crazy! Facebook knows my gender, I promise, so it could say her. I'd think they were smart enough to program it in. :)


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