Paula’s question: “This issue has come up often in our organization — the use of ‘their’ for singular instead of ‘his/her.’ For example, many write: ‘This patient needs to follow their diet better.’ I would use ‘his/her.’ What is the acceptable norm now?”
BizWritingTip response: It is difficult to give a straight answer to this question. So I will start with the grammar rules and then state my own thoughts.
Traditionally, ‘his” was considered generic and used whenever you needed a singular pronoun.
Example (dated style)
This patient needs to follow his diet. (Could be male or female)
But many people felt this was an unsuitable, masculine bias. The major grammar books now give four solutions: 1) use “he or she” or “him or her,” 2) change the wording from singular to plural, 3) remove the pronoun, or 4) reword the sentence.
1) Example (use both pronouns)
This patient needs to follow his or her diet. (This can get rather cumbersome.)
2) Example (change the wording from singular to plural)
Patients need to follow their diets. (When referring to a specific case, this doesn’t make sense.)
3) Example (remove the pronoun)
The patient needs to follow the diet. (This sounds vague.)
4) Example (reword the sentence)
The diet needs to be followed by the patient. (This passive voice sentence puts the emphasis in the wrong place.)
The major grammar books (CP, Chicago, APA and AMA) don’t approve of he/she, s/he, him/her or his/her. Nor do they accept their. Yes, it was rumoured several years ago that the plural generic pronoun “their” would become acceptable. Unfortunately, I am still waiting.
My advice: If I was writing a report or a formal letter and didn’t know the appropriate gender for the pronoun, I would use the formal “he or she” and “him or her.”
If I was writing an email or a file document, I might break the rule and use “their” or “he/she” or “him/her.” Normally, I don’t believe in breaking the rules, but, in this instance, it might be the best solution when writing informally.
Note: The style guides of many organizations ignore this issue completely. However, it is a common question. Organizations should decide how they want to handle it, and then everyone can be on same page.