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Guest Post: To each their own

by Tom Johnson on Apr 16, 2011
categories: technical-writing

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.

Marcia Johnston
Marcia Johnston

They has gone singular. So have their, them, and themselves. We're assailed every day by sentences like these:

  • “What's annoying to me isn't someone using their phone at the table, it's the people who think I shouldn't use mine.”
  • “Equity is the right of every person to advance their well-being.”
  • “This is a great chance for anyone looking to start their own business.”
  • “Open the profile of a friend, and add their phone number so it's easy to call them.”
  • “Health management allows one to take care of themselves.”
  • “As a drowning man wants air, as the lover seeks their beloved, so must you focus on what you want.”

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.

  • He ("To each his own") covers both masculine and feminine conventionally. But this usage has fallen out of favor because of its apparent bias.
  • She ("To each her own") simply reverses the bias.
  • S/he ("To each his/her own") is unpronounceable.
  • He or she ("To each his or her own") works, but few say it.

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.

  • Turn singulars into plurals. (“As lovers seek their beloveds…”)
  • Go ahead, use his or her. (“As the lover seeks his or her beloved…”)
  • Switch occasionally between feminine and masculine. (loverhisloverher)
  • Switch to a direct address: you. (“Lover, seek your beloved…”)
  • Switch to the more inclusive we. (“As we lovers seek our beloveds…”)
  • Remove the pronoun altogether. (“As the lover seeks the beloved…”)

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 [email protected]. To save her contact information instantly to your smartphone, use any barcode-scanner app to scan this QR code:

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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