Politically Correct Pronouns

by Cherie Tucker

February 2016

We’ve talked about this before, but it’s been a long time, so here’s a review. The rule is that pronouns must agree with the word they are standing in for (called the antecedent when you were in school) in three areas:

Number (How many are there in that word you are subbing for?)

Gender (Is that word masculine or feminine?)

Case (Is that word doing something or being done to?)

A problem comes up when you start a sentence with words like one or each or every. These words are singular, not plural, so they require singular pronouns to stand in for them. In the old days, the “correct” singular pronoun was always he or his, depending on the use in the sentence. Consequently, you would write

Each of our students must turn in his homework on time.

Now, fortunately, that would be unacceptable unless you were talking only about male students, so something had to be done. The first fix that came up was the he/she awkwardness:

Each of our students must turn in his or her homework in on time.

Then things devolved as people in casual conversation violated the old rule of pronouns agreeing in number by saying:

Each of our students must turn in their homework on time.

There is an easier way to write this kind of thing that is still correct and not awkward: simply make the subject plural:

Our students must turn in their homework on time.

There you go. It’s easy, it’s correct (grammatically and politically), and no one is upset by your lapse of grammar skills. Try it. All writers will benefit from this tip.

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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