“Them,” “Their,” and “They” Shouldn’t Refer to a Single Entity in Writing
- On April 8, 2015
New York City has a new program to encourage parents to talk to their babies. Its tagline is “Talk to Your Baby, Their Brain Depends On It.” When I first read that, I had a vision of some sort of collective baby with a single brain.
In spoken language, it’s often okay to put rules of grammar aside, so it’s acceptable to use the plural pronouns them, their, and they to refer to a single person whose gender hasn’t been specified. We all say things like, “If anyone is looking for me, tell them I’ll be back in an hour,” “Someone left their laptop in the conference room,” or “Everyone at lunch said they deserve a raise.”
In the written word, however, it’s grammatically incorrect to use a plural pronoun to refer to a single entity.
So, what to do without sounding sexist (choosing he over she or vice versa) or clunky (choosing both)?
In the case of the babies, the easy solution would have been to make the program—and its tagline—plural, “Talk to Your Babies, Their Brains Depend On It.” (Maybe the program’s creators wanted to emphasize a one-on-one dialogue with parents, many of whom have only one baby, but opting for the plural form, “Talk to Your Babies,” would seem an effective public rallying cry—and give the program an intelligible tagline.)
Unfortunately, we don’t have an easy solution to grammatically (and politically correctly) maneuver our way out of situations like these—there is no common-sex singular pronoun, at least not yet. We do, however, have various options to write our way around the problem. Using the plural form is one of them. Here are some others.
Write out he or she, him or her, his or hers
This works if you don’t have to repeat it more than once or twice. The following sentence, which I found in the introduction to a blog post about a survey, works nicely: We gained a number of insights into the strong link between the reputation of the CEO and his or her company’s reputation.
Avoid he/she and s/he, which are jarring—and, as for the latter, unpronounceable.
Change the pronoun to an article
A CEO can adopt a number of different strategies to develop a leadership style.
Use the second person, you
Recently I wrestled with the following clunker of a sentence: Our job is to know what each one of our customers values and to make sure we give it to him or to her, whether he or she is traveling for business or pleasure, going away for the weekend or taking the family on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation.
I needed to stress the individual customer, so I didn’t want to turn customer into customers and talk about them. Instead, I broke the sentence into two, did a little revising, and used the second person in the second sentence. We know that value means something different to everybody. When you are our customer, our job is to know what you value and to make sure you get it, whether you are traveling for business or pleasure, going away for the weekend, or taking the family on a once-in-a-lifetime vacation.
Reword to avoid the preposition
Here are two examples from a grammar book I refer to a lot (title and author are at the end of the post):
Before: A psychiatrist may ethically obtain research data from his patients, but his main objective must remain that of attending to their needs.
After: A psychiatrist may ethically obtain research data from patients, but must not lose sight of the main objective of attending to their needs.
Before: The bashful writer is reluctant to come right out and state his position firmly.
After: The bashful writer is reluctant to come right out and take a firm position.
Alternate between masculine and feminine pronouns
This can work when the reference to either a male or female individual doesn’t affect the meaning of what you’re writing.
Sometimes using masculine or feminine pronouns to cover all people is fine. It’s a matter of judgment. In the case of the babies, that would not have worked.
The grammar book I like is Grammatically Correct: The Essential Guide to Spelling, Style, Usage, Grammar and Punctuation. It’s by Anne Stilman.