English Grammar and Usage, Reader Polls

Grammer Pole of the Weak: When Did ‘Their’ Start Replacing ‘His or Her’?

Welcome to the latest edition of Above the Law’s Grammer Pole of the Weak, a column where we turn questions of legal writing and English grammar and usage over to our readers for discussion and debate.

Last week, we found out that our readers, 81% of them, in fact, couldn’t care less about being polite (who knew?). Grammatically speaking, they don’t think that a single person can be “diverse.” You hear that, law firms? If you’re looking for minority applicants, cut the pleasantries and say so.

This week, we’ll be turning to a question that’s been debated through the ages. We’ve dealt with gender-neutral language in the past, but today we’re turning it up a notch. When using gender-neutral singular nouns, is it acceptable to use “their” as a singular pronoun later on in the sentence?

Here’s a question that we received from a grammarian who rides the bus to work each day:

I commute to and from the Port Authority Bus Terminal every day. There are annoying safety announcements that are broadcasted constantly throughout the terminal, designed to advise the bus-riding proles on how to use the escalators safely. I imagine when some idiot sues for injuries sustained while riding an escalator, the Port Authority wants to respond by saying, “told ya so!”

Now the grammar-relevant announcement: One escalator safety announcement says something like “guardians should be especially careful when accompanying a small child, and hold their hand when riding the escalator.” This is a government agency that probably had an escalator announcement subcommittee. The language for these announcements was probably reviewed for months or years by the subcommittee before going public. I am almost certain that the decision to use the plural possessive pronoun “their” was deliberate, rather than using “his or her,” which would be more appropriate.

This subcommittee could have used “children” in the first clause to avoid improper grammar, but the Port Authority legal counsel may have been afraid that using “children” in the first clause would result in a legal argument that a child was grotesquely mangled in an escalator accident because the announcement only applied to guardians with more than one child.

My question for the poll: Is it now acceptable in standard English to use “their” in the place of “his or her” when referring to a gender-neutral singular noun?

Great question! Let’s turn to Grammar Girl for some guidance on this issue — one which she calls a “contentious language landmine.” After all, who wants to step on a landmine? Not Grammar Girl:

[I]t takes a bold, confident, and possibly reckless person to use “they” with a singular antecedent today. I could almost feel people’s blood pressure rising as I started to imply that it is OK to use “they.”

[H]ere’s the bottom line: Rewrite your sentences to avoid the problem. If that’s not possible, check to see if the people you are writing for have a style guide. If not, use “he or she” if you want to play it safe, or use “they” if you feel bold and are prepared to defend yourself.

But apparently, some people don’t mind using “they” or “their” following a singular antecedent. Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, refers to this one as a “grammar myth.” He states:

“They” must never occur with a singular antecedent.
Pullum: “They” is standardly used with quantified noun phrase antecedents like “everyone,” “no one,” and “anybody.” So sentences like “Nobody likes paying their taxes” are perfectly grammatical English, and this use has been common for hundreds of years. With other kinds of antecedent, “they” is less likely, but does occur and is becoming more frequent.

So readers, we’d like to know what you think. Do you you think that the use of “their” is an acceptable way to refer back to a singular antecedent? After all, our language currently lacks a word to fill in the gap in these situations. Let us know in our poll:

Is it now acceptable to use 'their' in the place of 'his or her' when referring to a gender-neutral singular noun?

  • No. A lawyer should never use this language in his or her practice. (59%, 556 Votes)
  • Yes. A lawyer should feel free to use this language in their practice. (41%, 388 Votes)

Total Voters: 944

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Generic Singular Pronouns [Grammar Girl]
Book’s coauthor sets the record straight [UC Santa Cruz Currents Online]

Earlier: Prior Grammer Poles of the Weak

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