Wilbers: Readers question 'shrunk' and use of singular 'their,' 'they'

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 29, 2012 - 7:38 PM

A number of readers objected to my use of the third person plural their and they in reference to the singular person in the following sentence:

"Maybe this person is good at organizing their message, but they don't offer enough examples or sufficient evidence to support their assertions."

Traditional grammar calls for the third person singular his, hers or its in reference to a singular noun or pronoun.

The problem is that English has no third person singular personal pronoun that is inclusive of both genders. To avoid sexist language, many writers use he or she or his or hers, as in "A teacher should care about his or her students," although it is generally agreed that a better solution is to make all references plural, as in "Teachers should care about their students."

In some instances, however, neither solution works well, as in "Maybe this person is good at organizing his or her message, but he or she doesn't offer enough examples or sufficient evidence to support his or her assertions."

In these instances, my preference is to use they or their, as in "Everyone has a right to their opinion," as recommended by Casey Miller and Kate Swift in "The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing."

Note, however, that my practice differs from that recommended by "The Associated Press Stylebook," which states, "Everyone takes singular verbs and pronouns."

But on principle I won't write "Everyone has a right to his opinion," no more than I will write "A teacher should care about her students" or "A reporter should protect his sources." And his or her hurts my ear.

My practice is be inclusive, to avoid he or she and his or hers, to make all references plural when practical -- and to use what Miller and Swift call the singular they and their in reference to indefinite pronouns (as Shakespeare, George Eliot, Walt Whitman and many other writers have done).

None of this is meant to suggest that we should disregard the rules of grammar and usage. Plural subjects take plural verbs, and singular pronouns should be used in reference to singular pronouns. But there are exceptions: "Profit and loss is [not are] important" and "You are [not is] correct" even when you refers to a single person. And, I would argue, "Everyone has a right to their opinion."

Another reader chastised a colleague at the newspaper for writing "Penn State shrunk its deficit." As with dived and dove, dictionaries list both shrank and shrunk for the past tense, but shrank is preferred.

"Don't worry," this reader continued, "You're in good company since none of your fellow 'journalists' recall their fifth grade grammar lessons either."

A few days later, a one-sentence message was copied to me: "I apologize for my snarky email."

No problem (or as the young people say, no worries). It's appropriate for readers to hold writers and publications accountable. Believe me, I've seen snarkier messages.

Hey, I think that's the first time I've ever written snarkier.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at wilbe004@umn.edu. His website is www.wilbers.com.

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