Reviewing Personal Pronouns: They & Their

Updated 2020

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I wrote a short post the other day, mentioning a few common issues I see surrounding word usage, and one reader (Judy Resnick) wrote about the misuse of their for a singular subject, opting to use he or she, him and her, or hers or his.

I also have trouble using they, their, or them when referring to a singular subject; it goes against everything I learned and still largely believe when I’m writing or speaking — even though it is now considered acceptable (see the 2020 update near the bottom).

If you also find it difficult to use those plural pronouns that way, there are a couple of ways around that issue that can help, either rewriting the sentence or using common sense to realize what you know to be true.

Rewrite a sentence

We no longer live in a world where a specific job title means a male or a female will automatically be in that role; doctors are no longer always male and nurses are no longer always female. In order to describe the actions someone will perform, though, it’s often necessary to use pronouns. But even when we don’t know the gender of the person, using they, their, or them with a singular subject is still bad grammar to many of us (although that’s slowly changing; see below). Using only the masculine or feminine pronoun leaves the other gender out of the equation, and using some version of he or she calls attention to itself and can create awkward writing, especially if used too frequently.

Here are three reasonable ways to create gender-neutral writing, which is what we’re trying to do, right?

Rewrite using a noun only, not a pronoun

NO: When an analyst writes a report, he should …
YES: When writing a report, an analyst should ..Y

 

Repeat the noun — if it’s a short one!

NO: When the nurse talks to a new patient, she should …
YES: When the nurse talks to a new patient, the nurse should …

 

Use plural subjects, which is the easiest way to deal with the issue of male or female pronouns.

NO: When an administrator signs the check, she should …
YES: When administrators sign checks, they should …Y

 

When we do know the gender …

But there’s one more issue to address, and that’s recognizing that in many situations, we already know that a group is composed of a single gender. So there’s no reason to ever use a plural pronoun when referring to one of them when they’re all female or male.

Think about that for a minute. Aren’t all moms / sisters / aunts women? Aren’t all women “she”? Aren’t all dads / brothers / uncles male? Aren’t all males “he”?

So why would we ever write “Each mother should bring their child to …” ?

It should be “each mother should bring her child to … ” or “all the mothers  should bring their children … ”

Are we so afraid of being seen as discriminatory that we’re afraid to use the pronouns that exist specifically to identify someone who is male or female?

What sparked these thoughts was an announcer at the PGA Masters tournament, which includes only male players, saying something like this: “each of the players needs to use their abilities to …”

NO. With only male players, it should have been and should always be “each of the players needs to use his abilities …”

Now if it had been an LPGA tour event, which comprises only women, the sentence would be “each of the players needs to use her abilities …”

Update 2020:

What about using “each” when we are referring to someone we don’t know who could be either male or female? Well, “they” and “their” are now accepted ways to talk about those whom we don’t know … but I still have a tough time doing that! My usual way to deal with it is to use a plural subject, if possible.

Rather than “each person should bring their …,” which still might sound awkward, write or say “everyone should bring their … ” or “all of them should bring their …” or something like that. 

Does this all make sense? Does it help? Please let me know by commenting, and thanks!