by Cherie Tucker
Our language unfortunately does not have a plural pronoun that
includes both males and females. This lack has caused many
headaches for writers in these politically correct times. It used
to be correct to say
“Each of our customers will receive his statement on the
third Wednesday of the month.” However, the old rule that used only
the masculine pronoun, he, him, his, for everything has been
It is still a rule that a pronoun must agree with its antecedent in
number, gender, and case. What that means is that if you have a word
that is singular, like “each” (that’s the antecedent—the word that
comes before) in the above example, you can’t use “their” to refer
to it. The word each is singular; their is plural.
The rule solved the problem by simply using those masculine
pronouns exclusively. No one cared much what women thought about
this for centuries. When people realized that they’d better include
women in these generalizations, however, the solution was to say,
“Each of our customers will receive his or her statement on
the third Wednesday of the month.” Inclusive, yes, but awkward.
There is a better way to solve this problem:
MAKE THE SUBJECT PLURAL.
Then you can use the lovely, non-gender-specific, all-inclusive
word, their. Simply decide if you are talking about one
thing or many things. The above example really talks collectively
about customers, not merely singularly about each. So
kill the each and make the sentence read: “Our customers
will receive their statements on the third Wednesday of the
month.” Problem solved. But wait, there’s more. You can recast
the sentence to avoid the problem entirely: “Customer statements
will be mailed on the third Wednesday of the month.” Or: “You
will receive your statement on the third Wednesday of the
month.” In our wonderful English language, we can say the same
thing whichever way suits. Let’s do some more.
Instead of “Each of our students must bring his or her
lunch on the field trip,” try “Students must bring their
lunches on the field trip.” Isn’t that easier? You are talking
about all the students, so pick a construction that will allow you
to use their. Here’s another common one
“A teacher often spends their own money for supplies.” Here we
have A teacher, only one, so make that plural: “Teachers
often spend their own money for supplies.” One more:
“Every passenger must remove their shoes.” Change it to
passengers, and everything works. Put a little note on your
keyboard that says, “MAKE THE SUBJECT PLURAL.” Then you’ll be fine.
Cherie Tucker, owner of GrammarWorks, has taught writing basics to
professionals since 1987, presenting at the PNWA conference.
She currently teaches Practical Grammar for Editors at the
University of Washington’s Editing Certification program and edits