December 3, 2015

Weekly Language Usage Tips: singular their

Posted in singular their, Uncategorized at 11:12 am by dlseltzer

In response to ur discussion of penultimate which does not mean ultimate, but means next to the ultimate, a reader writes:

I’ve been a reader of your e-mails for at least a year and have enjoyed them very much. My father was a stickler for correct word usage, and I seem to have inherited the gene! I did already know the meaning of penultimate, but I am also aware that so many people use the word incorrectly. While you presented good examples to show what people think it means and then followed with the true meaning, I noticed what I believe is a grammatical error. In your bracketed Note, you wrote the following: “Everyone has their own opinions.” Should it not be “his or her”, instead of “their”, or, is it acceptable these days to use “their”, which may sound better to the ear, as less awkward? Perhaps you’ve already addressed this situation, or if not for a while, perhaps you’d consider doing so again.

Ahh, the singular ‘their.’ We have talked about this, but it has been a while, so it’s probably a good idea to talk about this particular abomination again. And, I can’t believe that I brought it on myself. You can probably guess how I feel about it; the last time I wrote about it, I used the word, hate, once or twice—okay, maybe it was nine or ten times.

Let’s start at the beginning. The singular ‘their’ came into being because we have no gender-neutral third person singular pronoun. ”Their’ has been pressed into service.

I asked everyone to choose their favorite ornament to put on the tree. (I figure we might was well be seasonal. Why not? ‘Tis the season, after all.)

Now, as the reader pointed out, it would also be correct to say:

I asked everyone to choose his or her favorite ornament to put on the tree.

I have no problem with the ‘his or her’  or ‘his/her’ construct, but lots of people do, saying that it’s really clunky.

Over time, people have invented third person singular pronouns trying to find the right fit. Can you get you head around ‘thon’ or ‘hen’ or ‘xe’ or ‘ze’? Neither can I.

I asked everyone to choose thon favorite ornament.

Yeeeesh. No way.

So, there’s ‘their.’    Over time, it has become acceptable to use ‘their’ in this way. But I can’t help it—I still hate it. When last I wrote about this issue, I challenged readers to reword sentences so you can use a different construction. For instance,

I asked all of the people to choose their favorite ornaments to put on the tree.

See, that’s not so grating. I do that all the time to avoid the use of the singular ’their.’

But one time, just one time, I was lazy and wanted to finish the wlut, so I used the singular ’their.’ And I was busted. Rats. But of course, I was busted, I used it in the wlut. What was I thinking?

So, the answer is yes, it is considered correct to use the singular ‘their,’ but some of us curmudgeons aren’t crazy about it, so it’s always better to change the wording. When I wrote that “everyone has their own opinions,” I could have and should have written that “people have their own opinions.” But oh no, I was lazy. Busted.

Happy holidays!

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