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.”