Grammar Tip – His/Her or Their

Jane’s Question: “Having to use she/he or his/her or even s/he throughout a long document is often cumbersome, but changing it to they or their when we are still referring to the singular person is just wrong, isn’t it? What do you say?”

BizWritingTip response: This is a frequently debated question.

Language purists say a pronoun must always agree with its antecedent. Therefore, you should write “Everyone must hang his coat in the closet.” (The word everyone always takes a singular pronoun.) His is considered a gender neutral pronoun and covers both men and women.

However, proponents of popular language usage claim this is sexist. And they believe: “Everyone must hang his or her coat in the closet” is tedious. They recommend writing “Everyone must hang their coats in the closet.”

Note: Until the early 1800s, their was used as a gender-neutral pronoun. Then grammarians in trying to apply the rules of Latin to English decided it was bad grammar to use theirHis was the only acceptable pronoun.

Yes, you can avoid the debate by making everything plural.

All people should hang their coats in the closet.

But what happens when the pronoun definitely has to be singular? Can you write “The winner of the contest must permit his picture to be released to the media”? Yes, but this will upset some women. Remember the recent outcry regarding O Canada and the words “in all our sons command.”

Can you write “The winner of the contest must permit his or her photo to be released to the media”? Yes, but the sentence seems boring and long. The same would be true if you used the “his/her” construction. Never use “s/he.” If you can’t say a phrase comfortably, never write it.

You could write “The winner of the contest must permit their photo to be released to the media.” But now you are going to upset the language purists.

Frankly, I don’t have the answer. My own guideline is to make everything plural. If I can’t, then I use “his” (“her” if it definitely requires a feminine pronoun) when I am working with someone who is a stickler for grammar.

If I am working for someone who wants the copy to sound the way people speak, I use “their.”