Grammar Tip – Noun and Pronoun Agreement

BizWritingTip reader: “Is the following sentence right? ‘If the writer does not explain him or herself clearly, readers will often get incorrect information.’ ”

BizWritingTip response: This question involves several grammar issues.
First, a pronoun must agree with its antecedent (the word it is replacing) in terms of number and gender.


Marie said she can make the meeting.
We worked hard on our submission.
The company should ensure its employees follow the procedures.

Second, when using a singular noun of unclear gender, e.g., writer, lawyer, actor, or doctor, it was common practice to use “he” or its variations as a generic pronoun.


A good supervisor should meet with his staff frequently (gender is not relevant).
writer must explain himself clearly (the gender is not known).

Third, there are some people who believe the pronoun “he” is not appropriate when applying equally to men and women. They feel you should also include the feminine pronoun “she” or its variations if you wish to be “politically correct.”


A good supervisor should meet with his or her staff frequently.
Let’s ask an investment councellor to give us his or her advice.

This works fine in certain circumstances, but it can be clumsy. When possible, make the noun plural so the following pronoun is not gender specific.


Good supervisors should meet with their staff frequently.
Writers should explain themselves clearly.

Do not use he/she constructions. They are awkward and difficult to read.

However, to answer the original question: If you are concerned about “political correctness,” then say “If the writer does not explain him- or herself clearly, readers will often get incorrect information.”

This is also an example of a suspended hyphen. (That’s why there is a hyphen after “him.”) We’ll talk about this rule in another post.