The Grammarphobia Blog

A singular question

[Note: An updated post on the use of “they” in singular references was published on May 22, 2017.]

Q: What’s a suitable (that is, gender-less) alternative to the use of the pronoun “his” in the sentence “Someone forgot to pay his bills”? Many people use “their” instead of “his” in this case and others like it. What’s your opinion?

A: You’ve asked the grammar question of the century: What’s a suitable, gender-free, singular pronoun for such cases? The answer: There isn’t one. The use of “they,” “them,” and “their” in reference to singulars isn’t considered acceptable in formal English (at least as of today) even though millions of people use them that way.

One solution to the problem is to use the phrase “his or her,” as in “Someone forgot to pay his or her bills.” But many people consider that clunky.

Here’s another solution: If the piece you’re writing is long, and if this seems appropriate, alternate using masculine pronouns in some places and feminine pronouns in others, to indicate a sort of generic individual. You might say “Someone forgot to pay his bills” in one place and “Did anyone lose her umbrella?” in another.

A third solution is to “write around” the problem. Instead of “Someone forgot to pay his bills,” write “Someone forgot to pay the bills.” Instead of “If anyone calls, tell him I’m out,” use “If anyone calls, say I’m out.”

If you want to use “they,” “them” or “their,” you could, on the other hand, make the subject plural instead of singular: “If people call, tell them I’m out” or “All parents dote on their children.”

There’s always a way around this problem.

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