June 12, 2008

Weekly Language Usage Tips: The singular ‘their,” sex and gender

Posted in sex and gender, the singular "their" at 6:54 pm by dlseltzer

Weekly Language Usage Tips

Last week, I asked if anyone knew where the phrase “stick to your guns” came from? Well, it seems that you are better than me at searching.

Bernie found:

From the web site “Phrase a week”: http://www.phrases.org.uk/a-phrase-a-week/index.html Re: Stick/stand to your guns Posted by ESC on November 20, 2001In Reply to: Re: Sticking to his guns posted by R. Berg on November 20, 2001

Does the phrase “he’s sticking to his guns” usually imply that the individual referred to has made a moral commitment, or simply that he is stubborn, has dug in his heels, and is possibly desperate? Thanks. -Patty

:To my ear it has the former connotation. Gun-sticking is the work of heroes, not villains.

I vote heroes. From the archives:

STICK TO YOUR GUNS/STAND TO YOUR GUNS – It’s a military term. The “Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings” by Gregory Y. Titelman. (Random House, New York, 1996) states: “Stick to your guns – hold to your convictions and rights. The proverb has been traced back to the ‘Life of Samuel Johnson’ by James Bobswell (1740-95). It was first attested in the United States in ‘Seven Keys to Baldpate (1913) by Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933).” From the “Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins” by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997): the term may be military in origin and lists a mention of the term “as late as 1839, in a popular novel called ‘Ten Thousand a Year’ the words put in the mouth of a civilian named Mr. Titmouse.”

Both Donna and Quansheng found (through Google and thefreedictionary.com, respectively):

Etymology: based on the military meaning of stick to your guns (= to continue shooting at an enemy although it puts you in great danger)

Thank you all. I appreciate your efforts.

Tip 1: The singular “their”

Today, I am going to tackle a topic I have been deliberately putting off because it is both controversial and complicated. That topic is the use of the singular “their” and to be upfront about it, I really hate it. No, it’s not that I hate it—it’s that I really, really hate it.

The singular “their” is more and more commonly used in place of “his or hers” in a sentence in which the sex of the antecedent is unknown or unspecified.

Each investigator has to be responsible for his or her own research budget.

Each investigator has to be responsible for their own research budget. (Oh, it just gives me the creeps.)

How did we come to be in this pickle? In the olden days (meaning when I was a child), we used “his” to cover both male and female possibilities.

Each investigator has to be responsible for his own research budget.

Life was so much simpler then. Later, about 4 decades ago (meaning when I was in college), the women’s movement came to life, and the above usage was deemed sexist (which it is, but, boy, in retrospect, that was such a simple solution), and we had no gender neutral pronoun to take its place. (We had “its” but that use is just screwy when we are talking about people.)

So, to be inclusive, we used “his or her” or his/her” as a solution.

Each investigator has to be responsible for his or her own research budget.

Each investigator has to be responsible for his/her own research budget.

While this was a reasonable solution—“his or her” not “his/her” which is just ugly—the constant repetition of “his or her” in a long document was viewed as annoying.

Some well-intentioned folks decided to make up for the long-time use of “his” by using “her.”

Each investigator has to be responsible for her own research budget.

But the problem with this is that this usage, especially when used by a man, sounds a bit patronizing (albeit well-intended).

More recently, some well-intentioned—but not very bright—folks decided to alternate “his” and “her” at each use in a document. This turned out to be very confusing and had the tendency to make readers quite seasick. This usage had to go.

So then, even more recently, some bozo decided the solution was to invent the singular “their,” and thus, my dismay and outrage were born. It is grammatically incorrect—there is no way around it—it’s wrong.

So if we choose to eschew the singular “their” which is what I advocate, what can we do? I have the answer.

If this construct is used infrequently in your document, you can use “his or her.” Alternatively, avoid the use of the pronoun completely.

Each investigator has to be responsible for the investigator’s research budget.

But, the most elegant solution is to recast the sentence so that the use of “their” is not an issue.

Investigators have to be responsible for their own research budgets.


All investigators have to be responsible for their own research budgets.

I challenge you to NOT take the easy way out. Find a way to rephrase your sentences, and do away with the singular “they.”

(Yeah, yeah, I know it should be “their” but I liked the rhyme, and everything I said here holds true for the singular “they,” too. It just isn’t seen as frequently.)

Tip 2: Gender and sex

Did you notice in the above tip, that I wrote “…when the sex of the antecedent is unknown or unspecified”?

That was intentional. Although people often use “gender” and “sex” synonymously, they are different. “Sex” refers to male or female and “gender” refers to masculine or feminine traits or characteristics. “Sex” is biological; “gender” is a social construct.

I think people decided to use “gender” when meaning “sex” because “gender” seems more gentile, and “sex” seems more like, well, sex.

I’ve been guilty of this myself—many years ago, changing “sex” to “gender” on a survey because “gender” sounded more formal and proper than “sex.” The only reason that my learned colleagues let me get away with it, I think, is because they were uncomfortable using ‘sex,” themselves. But no more. Gender is gender and sex is sex, so use them proudly and appropriately.

Requesting your views

Matt wrote:

I have a general question: When does a word from another language become English? At some point, a word must be considered part of the English (or “American”) language and thus follow the usual rules for the singular and plural forms. We all seem to be particularly caught up in this issue around Greek and Latin words but ignore other languages where these rules would be even more cumbersome. For example, that is the plural of Inca? Or is that the plural? Aztec? Karaoke? We need some uniformity here. And since no one is likely to be able to remember the rules for plural forms for the original language of every non-English word, I vote to be a uniformly disrespectful to all those languages and use English plural-form rules.

I tend to agree with Matt but I thought I would see what others think. Uniform disrespect?



  1. judy said,

    I work on making things plural. Like you, I cringe when their is used as a singular pronoun.

  2. dlseltzer said,

    pamela said:

    Research budgets are each investigator’s responsibility. a little passive, but solves the problem (which i hate as well)

  3. I know this post is over a year old, but seeing as how you’re still keeping this blog up-to-date, I figured it’d still be worth commenting. So comment I will.

    I take issue with some of the points you’ve made in this post.

    In tip 1, you act as if singular “they”/”their” was invented as an alternative to “him”/”his” during the feminist movement in the past 50 or 60 years. By doing so, you neglect the history of the singular usage. In fact, it has been around for hundreds of years, and was considered perfectly acceptable, before prescriptivists made the decision to excise it from the language. Not to mention that it has been, and continues to be, used in natural speech.

    In tip 2, you attempt address the difference between sex and gender, and everything you said about the two was right—except the part about actually tying that difference to language. Words do not have sex-specific forms, or sex agreement. “Him” is not the male form of a 3rd person pronoun, it is the masculine form. Gender is indeed a social construct, but language is tied to that construct. It is not tied to whatever the biological aspect may be. This is also the reason that we can have a neuter form of a word.

    So those are the issues I have with this particular post. Nevertheless, I do appreciate you taking the time to (attempt to) explain your position, rather than just saying “because I said so”.


  4. ராஜாராமன் said,

    Can we not invent new words like ‘hir’ or ‘hes’ to denote ‘his or her’ ?

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