His/Hers? He/She? Theirs? S/he?

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 tossed out.  

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:


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 as well.  GrammarWorks@msn.com

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