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Thread: His or her versus their

  1. #1
    wants mutant powers Suse's Avatar
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    His or her versus their

    Does anyone have an opinion on the use of 'their' versus 'his or her'? I know you should use 'their' with plural verbs, 'his or her' with singular, but what about those times when using 'his or her' is clunky, when using 'his' on its own is glaringly incorrect (because you are referring to a mixed crowd)? What do you think about substituting 'their' in fiction, where the writing is somewhere between formal and informal?

    This is my sentence, referring to a gathering of men and women:
    Each participant approached the water bearer to have their/his or her hands rinsed.


  2. #2
    POP$ AW benefactor Chase's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Suse View Post
    This is my sentence, referring to a gathering of men and women: Each participant approached the water bearer to have their/his or her hands rinsed.
    His or her does get cluncky and repetitive, but that isn't a good excuse for the lazy and often confusing use of plural pronouns for singular antecedents.

    The easiest fix is to go all plural:

    Men and women approached the water bearer to have their hands rinsed.

    One by one, participants approached the water bearer to have their hands rinsed.

    When it absolutely, positively has to be singular, rewrite:

    Each participant approached the water bearer to have hands rinsed.

  3. #3
    wants mutant powers Suse's Avatar
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    Thanks, Chase. 'One by one...' I'll have that! That's a nice fix and it makes it clearer that the participants don't swarm forward in a mass.


  4. #4
    Interprets for aliens Juliette Wade's Avatar
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    I agree. All I would add is that while in writing, it's good to keep these things ironed out, in a character voice you might be able to stretch the boundaries a bit, depending on the character's usage of English grammar.
    Juliette Wade
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    My author site: http://juliettewade.com
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  5. #5
    POP$ AW benefactor Chase's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Juliette Wade View Post
    All I would add is that while in writing, it's good to keep these things ironed out, in a character voice you might be able to stretch the boundaries a bit, depending on the character's usage of English grammar.
    For sure, JW. Dialog should reflect the character, and many of us say quirky things. I saw this reference to a puppy said last week: "See? She's mine. A child always knows their own mother."

    Wouldn't dare change authentic dialog.

  6. #6
    punny user title, here
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    It's a rather complex topic.

    "Everyone approached the water bearer to have their hands rinsed," is somewhat more acceptable than "Each participant...." But both usages have their proponents.

    "Each participant approached the water bearer to have his hands rinsed," is not incorrect, either. Using "he" for mixed groups is a well-established practice, though it's fallen from grace a bit lately.

    The following is pretty much unacceptable (though I've seen it used and defendend, too): "A participant approached the water bearer to have their hands rinsed." Singular their is usually not used when you're referring to one particular person.

    If, however, you use "a participant" in an abstract manner referring to a hypothetical rather than to a historical real person, you will find more people who accept this (including me, for one, even though I don't think I would use it myself): "A participant would have to approach the water bearer to have their hands rinsed."

    Here's a good place to start an investigation on "singular they" if you're interested enough. Be sure to check out the excerpt from Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct on that page.
    Last edited by Dawnstorm; 08-13-2009 at 11:19 AM.

  7. #7
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    Now if...

    everyone used hir and s/he there wouldn't be a problem.

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