Possessiveness That Works

by Cherie Tucker

May 2016

I got a call last week asking if there might be a word to use that allows you to avoid using the “he/she” business with nouns that are singular but stand for a group. Sadly there isn’t such a word, but there is a way out.

If it is a word like “humanity” or “tribe” or “association” that includes people in groups but is still singular, you may simply use “it” without demeaning the members.

Humanity must weep when it sees how the climate has been abused.

If the word refers directly to the individuals in the group and is plural, you can use “they” or “them” to refer to it.

If people would be more careful, they wouldn’t have to worry.

On the other hand, if you are talking about a plural word in a phrase that begins with “each” or “one,” then you have a way to avoid the “he/she” nonsense that you are stuck with in the examples below.

Each of our students must bring his or her lunch money on the field trip.

One of the children will recite his or her poem tomorrow in class.

Realize that in each of these examples, you are not talking about students or children, you are talking about “each” or “one.” You could leave the words “students” and “children” out of the sentence entirely and still make your point. Therefore, because you are dealing with singular concepts, you cannot say, “Each must bring their.” Instead what you can do is to kill those singular words, like “each” and “one,” and make the existing plural words, “students” and “children,” your subjects. Then—and ONLY then—can you use they or them.

Our students must bring their lunch money on the field trip.

The children will recite their poems tomorrow in class.

To repeat: The words “students” and “children” are plural, as is “their.” The words “each” and “one” are not plural, they are singular, so you cannot pair them with plural words like ”them” or “their.” Once you master that simple trick of making the subject plural, you will never be plagued with that cumbersome he/she problem again.

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.