The following is a guest post by Marcia Johnston. Marcia lives in Portland, Oregon, at the intersection of Writing, User Experience, Information Architecture, and Content Strategy. She is the president of Marcia Riefer Johnston, Inc.
They has gone singular. So have their, them, and themselves. We're assailed every day by sentences like these:
I understand how we arrived at this unfortunate unpluraling of pronouns. English fails us. It offers us no word for his-or-her. We have no lui, which those lucky French can say when they mean to him or her. Our singular third-person pronouns — he, his, him, himself, she, hers, her, herself — are all gender-bound. None of these stand-ins stands in perfectly for person or anyone or each.
People who reject these imperfect choices have to fill the need somehow. With alarming frequency, they turn to the conveniently gender-neutral, if inconveniently plural, they. ("To each their own.")
Co-opting they is no solution! This practice has become so common, though, that most contemporary style guides now acknowledge the trend as irreversible.
A moment of silence, please, while I recite the Serenity Prayer, especially the part about accepting what I can't change.
Technology has exploded the use of the singular their. Biznik tells me that Jane, whom it recognizes as J-a-n-e, wants to add me to their network. LinkedIn reports that J-o-h-n has updated their profile. Biznik and LinkedIn don't finesse male-or-female nouns here. They n-e-u-t-e-r Shannon and John.
We can do better. We don't have the singular pronouns we want, but we have acceptable alternatives.
A person must stand his/her ground.
A person must stand their ground.
Stand your ground.
Marcia invites all word lovers to visit her blog, Word Power, or to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. To save her contact information instantly to your smartphone, use any barcode-scanner app to scan this QR code:
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I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.