“he” or “their”

  • Everyone should have their own space.
  • Someone left their book on the table.
  • Did everyone bring their lunch?
  • Every teacher should respect their students.

Purists would say the above sentences are wrong. There’s a singular subject and a plural adjective (their).

Many writers use this construction to avoid sexism. People used to write, “Everyone should have his own space.” Grammatically correct – and clearly sexist, implying that the male adjective is the only one worth bothering about.

Dictionary.com makes some interesting comments:

 Such use (their) is not a recent development, nor is it a mark of ignorance. Shakespeare, Swift, Shelley, Scott, and Dickens, as well as many other English and American writers, have used they and its forms to refer to singular antecedents. Already widespread in the language (though still rejected as ungrammatical by some), this use of they, their,  and them  is increasing in all but the most conservatively edited American English. This increased use is at least partly impelled by the desire to avoid the sexist implications of he  as a pronoun of general reference.

 grammar cat

Images courtesy of:

  • bbc.co.uk
  • istoftheday.blogspot.com

11 responses to ““he” or “their”

  1. I find it interesting that the use of “they” in that context dates so far back. I wish I’d known that a few days ago when a fellow English major was arguing that he uses “he” as the gender neutral pronoun because that’s historically and grammatically correct. I wish I could have whipped out Shakespeare, the ultimate trump card, to explain that that’s not necessarily the case. Next time…

    • Thanks for your comment. I was surprised, too, about how far back the use of “their” goes. I note that my version of Microsoft Word gives me a green line when I use ‘their’ in these contexts, meaning I’ve committed a grammar error.

  2. Hi Ed, political correctness hit Australia in the ’80s. By 1993, all the above sentences were being used by publishing houses and editors in order to fall in line with the dogma. I still feel very uncomfortable using it as I was raised in the his (the male embraces the female) generation. But I use it – they take you out and shoot you here, if you don’t.
    Ah well, English was ever a living language. You and I, who’ve lived as long as we have, have seen some of those changes over the years. Interesting stuff.

  3. I tend to be a prescriptivist, but in this case, I prefer “their.” I think English should have had a gender-neutral pronoun from the beginning. Since it doesn’t, I prefer using “they.”

  4. Pingback: A case for “they” | Grammar Party·

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