Okay, I admit it: I’ve caved on this one. As an old-fashioned grammarian, I tend to resist the frequent bending and breaking of traditional grammar rules by contemporary speakers and writers. But even grammatical nitpickers like me can recognize the need for practical improvements once in a while. I’m talking about the use of they and their pronouns with a singular antecedent for the purpose of avoiding gender bias. Some readers will disagree with me, but we have to pick our battles. Let me explain.
The new respect for women shown in their elevation in society to professional lives and leadership roles has changed the way we use language. With the discovery of an underlying gender bias in our language—the misleading assumption that all significant people are male—writers and speakers began to substitute the gender-neutral pronouns they and their for the previously ubiquitous he and his, or the grammatically correct but more awkward he or she and his or her. For example, “Ask each student what he wants for lunch” conveyed the idea that all students were male, but “Ask each student what he or she wants for lunch” was considered clumsy or stilted (my preferred shorthand was s/he). So the solution became “Ask each student what they want for lunch,” which is technically ungrammatical—because “each student” is a singular antecedent, and they is a plural pronoun—but is now widely accepted as both convenient and respectful to all genders. “If a guest (singular) wants to use the gym, they (plural) have to pay for it” has become the new convention. While it used to make me cringe, by now even I have accepted this new, singular they used to refer to a person whose gender isn’t known or isn’t important in the context.
But this popular revision of age-old noun-pronoun agreement rules often results in the annoying combination of a plural possessive pronoun with a singular noun—a noun that fills the role of the object of the singular antecedent’s actions. We are asked to tolerate statements like “the flight attendant gave their presentation and the plane took off.” This makes some sense—s/he gave only one presentation—but still grates on my ears. Similarly, “the firefighter grabbed their hose and climbed the stairs” may sound like the firefighter had multiple personalities, but there was probably only one hose involved. Cringeworthy perhaps, but for a good cause. But what about, “The HOA sticks their nose into everything I do”? Isn’t HOA a collective noun, and aren’t we talking about multiple noses? You can’t really share a nose. And I really draw the line at “Each of us has to decide how to live their life.” Ouch! My ear yearns to hear “their lives”—even though each of us has only one. It becomes easier to restore the plural with indefinite pronouns—such as anybody, everyone, or someone—as in “Would everyone please take out their textbooks and turn to page 50?” Although “everyone” is technically singular, we know there is more than one textbook being opened. Overall, it’s a sticky wicket that might have to be decided on a case-by-case basis.
Moreover, this new habit of playing fast and loose with pronouns has carried over into territory where it definitely does not belong—giving rise to my new pet peeve. Now that they’ve become deaf to the dissonance of a plural pronoun combined with a singular noun, writers and broadcasters will frequently fail to pluralize the noun even when it refers to a plural antecedent—which leads to pure nonsense. “People working outside in this heat should remember to wear their hat,” a news anchor admonished this summer. Wait a doggone minute! People is a plural noun, and they wear a lot of hats. The correct sentence should be, “People working outside in this heat should remember to wear their hats.” I suppose this is an inadvertent transference of the singular use of the plural possessive pronoun discussed above—without the speaker’s having the confidence to think for…. themselves? But it is driving me off the deep end.
Start paying attention and you will hear many examples of this new faux pas. “Millions still take aspirin for their heart without a doctor’s recommendation,” reports CNN. Do the millions share one heart, or shouldn’t that be their hearts? “Dog owners should not leave their dog in the car in hot weather with the windows closed,” the TV warns. No no! Let’s protect all of their dogs. Is it “time for all gardeners to start planting their garden”? Unless they share a communal one, it is time to plant their gardens. “Homeowners typically spend a lot to maintain their house in good condition,” realtors counsel. Since homeowners is plural, we are talking about many houses needing maintenance. Note that in each of these examples, the subject of the sentence, to which the possessive pronoun refers, is plural.
If you think this is confusing, things are about to become even more complicated. With gender identity becoming more fluid, these days the singular they is often used by choice for people who do not identify as “binary,” that is, strictly male or female.
As Merriam-Webster.com explains, “They is taking on a new use: as a pronoun of choice for someone who doesn’t identify as either male or female. The new use of they is direct, and it is for a person whose gender is known, but who does not identify as male or female. If I were introducing a friend who preferred to use the pronoun they, I would say, “This is my friend, Jay. I met them at work.” Don’t be surprised if you hear this new trend in usage.
Along with gender fluidity comes language fluidity. Language is flexible and continues to evolve in response to changing cultural attitudes and norms. I support the avoidance of gender bias and an inclusive grammar that applies fairly to all. But grammar rules are logical, and pronoun-antecedent agreement is a bedrock rule that helps us understand what is being said. Grammar nitpicker that I am, I sincerely hope that we can be flexible when necessary, but avoid breaking noun-pronoun agreement rules when it won’t hurt anyone’s feelings. If the antecedent is plural, the objects of their actions should be plural as well. Let’s stick with precedent whenever we can so that our communication makes sense.