“Their” as a singular

Since this is a copyediting subject, I may as well join in the fray.

Andrew Wheeler takes exception to Matt Cheney’s post claiming that “their” is fine as a singular.

I’m firmly with Matt on this one. This usage has gained popularity due to the need to eliminate the utterly silly and sexist use of “his” as a gender-neutral pronoun. Yes, you can usually rewrite sentences to get around the use of a singular “their” (the easiest way to do so is to pluralize the subject, but you can’t always do that), but the sentences often end up sounding stilted and unnatural. Using “their” to refer to a singular subject frequently results in the most natural sentence structure, which is especially important for fiction.

10 thoughts on ““Their” as a singular”

  1. (1) I entirely agree and get so irritated when I have to put a disclaimer on using ‘his’ as a third-person pronoun at the top of my papers, letting professors know I am not sexist but that the English language has failed me. And (2) of course ‘their’ can be eventually used as singular, due to rampant common usage. Language isn’t a static beast :)

  2. Andrew said this after you commented, and I’m curious to see what you think.

    “David: That quote is mostly in favor of “they” as an indefinite third-person pronoun, which is not at all the same thing as a definite singular third-person. Note that the examples tend to have antecedents like “everyone” or “some more audience” — antecedents that are themselves plural and indefinite.

    The usage I object to is of the kind “I went up to the receptionist and gave them my name.” I’m seeing more and more of it lately, and it’s both lazy and stupid — assigning indeterminacy to a specific person.

    A single, defined person is not a “them,” and never will be.

    And a single, undefined person doesn’t need to be a “they,” either — that’s a use which can almost always be avoided.”

  3. I suspect that the only people who even notice the singular “they” and “their” are copyeditors, English teachers, and the over-educated. In a few years, if brave copyeditors continue to champion it, it will probably sound normal even to the most discriminating ear.

  4. I’ve had nonfiction editors alter my ‘his’ or ‘her’ to ‘their’, and then go the other direction (different editors, same magazine). I prefer the ‘their’ because the his/her makes me stop and get distracted from the text to imagine a gender behind the actor, which I don’t think is necessary, and inventing a new pronoun for the neuter/both seems a bit excessive. I try to get around the issue entirely by using different phrasing when I can, but that’s a pain, too.

    Agree with Sherwood, also, re Jane Austen. I had a similar experience with another grammatical tic I had someone stomp on me for, and then I found that Milton used it as well. Good enough for him, good enough for me. I think Austen probably qualifies there, too (even if some of her phrasing can get kind of eye stabbing occasionally).

  5. Shveta: First, despite what he notes there, he was very clearly objecting to “their” as an indefinite. The example he was complaining about was “I’ll pay one author for their story.” He goes on to say, in Cheney’s blog, “There are many good ways to communicate that a singular third-person has an unknown (or unimportant) gender; making a myriad of other sentences less intelligible along the way is not one of them.”

    Second, calling the usage “lazy and stupid” is just silly. How is it lazy? It’s the same number of syllables either way–it’s not as though it’s somehow easier to say “they” than it is to say “his” or “her.” That type of talk is typical among people who are criticizing dialects other than their own. He can think it’s stupid if he likes, but I certainly don’t agree.

  6. ‘They’ as neutral form is ‘common in spoken English and increasingly in written English, although still deplored by some people’ (OED) – which is good enough for me.

    There are many occasions when I want to be inclusive, or want to draw attention away from a particular gender; and all the other alternatives (he/she etc) are much more cumbersome.

    Next up, the humble ‘alright’ which really isn’t offensive enough to stir up the hostility it creates…

  7. THANKYOUthankyouTHANKYOUthankyouetcadifinitum.

    If “you” can be used as singular as well as plural (as opposed to the now outdated singular “thou”), I think we should be able to use “they” as singular as well as plural, mostly for the gender-neutrality.

    I once had an editor very curtly (and somewhat unprofessionally) knock back a piece of mine because I used “they” in the singular form, and “we don’t buy pieces from writer who can’t even get the grammar correct in the first sentence.” Beeatch.

    As usual, you have won my undying adoration.

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