Gender-Neutrality: Singular Pronouns “They” & “Their”

The problem: sexist pronouns

Grammar problems can reflect tensions within society. Consider the following sentence from an imaginary advertisement:

Ask your doctor if he recommends CuresItAll™ for you and your family.

Fifty years ago, when relatively few women worked as physicians, such statements were commonplace. Now, of course, the assumption that a doctor will be male is both flawed, because many doctors are female, and offensive, because it implies that male doctors are the norm. For this reason, a modern advertisement might say,

Ask your doctor if they recommend CuresItAll™ for you and your family.

Because the English language lacks gender-neutral pronouns in the singular—our only choices are female (she/her/hers), male (he, him, his) or neuter (it, its)—English speakers often use instead the gender-neutral plural (they, them, their). The switch from singular to plural requires a corresponding change to the verb (in this case, from “recommends” to “recommend”), and it results in what is technically a grammatical error, since the singular noun “doctor” is now represented by the plural pronoun “they.”

This usage of plural pronouns to represent singular personal nouns can be found in Chaucer, Shakespeare and English writers of every epoch, but it has become more widespread as English-speaking societies have moved toward greater gender equality. Singular “they/them/their” is now widely heard in the spoken language, and it seems likely that formal written English will become comfortable with this usage in the not-too-distant future. The trend is suggested by a quick-and-dirty Google search that yields 355,000 results for “Ask your doctor if he recommends,” 110,000 for “she,” and 522,000 for “they.”

[search conducted July 24 2015]

For those of us writing formal English in the here-and-now, however, the issue can still be troublesome, since some editors may still want pronoun usage that adheres to the grammatical rule regarding singular and plural. (Pronoun usage is also a topic of heated discussion for anxious grammarians)

Confronting pronoun problems

First of all, consider your audience. When writing for a general audience, use whatever seems natural: singular “they” is just fine if that’s how the people you’re addressing talk. For formal writing, however, it is necessary to seek guidance. If you are preparing a talk, look for examples of pronoun usage in previous talks. If you are writing for an academic journal or a publishing house, check the “instructions for authors” or “style sheet,” often to be found on websites. Alternatively, check the usage in a recent issue of the journal or a recent book by the publisher.

If you find that it is necessary to avoid singular “they,” here are some considerations:

Three less-than-satisfying solutions to the pronoun problem

The most straightforward approach is simply to use “he or she” (or “she or he”, or even “s/he”):

Ask your doctor if he or she recommends CuresItAll™ for you and your family.

Sometimes this works just fine, but it can sound clunky:

He or she will have to tell him or her if he or she wants his or her questions answered.

Some authors substitute “she” for “he,” but this approach seems self-conscious and a bit polemical:

Ask your doctor if she recommends CuresItAll™ for you and your family.

Other writers alternate, though this could be confusing:

Ask your doctor if she recommends CuresItAll™ for arthritis,

and ask your dentist if he recommends CuresItAll™ for mouth pain.

Finally, some publications still allow the generic “he,” but this usage is likely to come across as sexist, and there remain instances where even this approach won’t work:

Each son or daughter should call his mother.

Three work-arounds

Here are three general suggestions for avoiding the unsatisfying solutions in those situations where you must avoid the gender-neutral singular “they.”

  1. i) rephrase the singular as plural: in the case of our imaginary advertisement, it would probably be fine simply to change “doctor” to “doctors,” especially since most people end up consulting more than one

Ask your doctors if they recommend CuresItAll™ for you and your family.

  1. ii) find a substitute for the pronoun: sometimes another generic noun will work

Ask your doctor if health care professionals recommend CuresItAll™.

iii) rethink the sentence: sometimes the best remedy is a complete retooling.

It was either the prince or the princess who gave their support to the rebellion.

Here even “his or her” would be both unclear and clunky, so it’s best to rewrite:

The rebellion received support from either the prince or the princess.

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