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Faceoff: ‘he’, ‘he or she’, ‘he/she’, ‘s/he’ versus ‘they’

I enjoy reading your comments on Oxford’s blog posts: they provide an invaluable insight into your language concerns, likes, and dislikes. Your remarks strengthen my awareness that we have a sophisticated and grammatically knowledgeable audience: this keeps me on my toes, to say the least. Of course, I always aim to stay within the bounds of good English, but I inadvertently incurred the ire of some people with the following sentence, in a recent blog about forming plurals of loanwords:

Ironically, the person who wrote the question above is revealing their own ignorance.

My faux pas? I used a singular noun (person) followed by the plural possessive determiner their. It’s clearly a contentious issue: several commenters believed that this was beyond the pale, while others jumped in to back me up. Presumably the antis (if they live in Britain) are also irritated every time they hear the automated voice on the 1471 phone service (BT caller ID) informing them that ‘the caller [singular] has withheld their [plural] number’. This wording also appears on the BT website:

BT 1471 tells you the last number that called – unless the caller withheld their number by dialling 141 before dialling your number…

When I consulted the two-billion-word Oxford English Corpus (OEC), I found numerous examples of similar usage from around the world, in highly respectable sources such as The Telegraph and the New York Times, but two (or even many) wrongs don’t make a right…so who’s correct and who’s wrong? Is it even an open-and-shut grammatical case?

Mea culpa?

Normally, I’d agree with my critics and readily apologize for any blunder: correct agreement is one of my favourite issues and I’ve blogged about it in the past. However, I freely admit that when I wrote that sentence, it didn’t ring any particular grammatical alarm bells (I also have a safety net, my blog posts being checked by some very astute people at Oxford University Press). What can I offer in my defence? Firstly, I’m in good literary company: according to the historical Oxford English Dictionary (OED), writers such as Thackeray, Oliver Goldsmith, and George Bernard  Shaw have all used this construction:

  It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses.
- GB Shaw, Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant (1898)

Secondly, I was an Oxford lexicographer in my previous existence, and it’s the policy of current English Oxford Dictionaries to use plural pronouns and determiners such as they and their in definitions in cases where, formerly, singular forms such as he and his would have been selected.

Being inclusive

Why did Oxford’s lexicographers take this approach in writing dictionary definitions for their current English dictionaries? It’s a matter of being gender neutral: we thought it important to use language that includes both men and women. In English, this can cause complications: in the singular, we have to use third person pronouns (he, she, him, her) and possessive determiners (his, her) that explicitly state the person’s gender. There isn’t any way of using a singular pronoun to refer to someone without identifying that person as male or female. When it comes to the third person plural, English only has gender-neutral forms such as they, them, their, etc.

So what happens when you want to say something like this?

How much can you tell about someone from (???) choice of Wellington boot?

In the past, there would have been no debate, someone is a singular pronoun and so the third person singular form his would have been the clear option for the corresponding possessive determiner:

How much can you tell about someone from his choice of Wellington boot?

This is because, in earlier times, the masculine forms his and he were taken to include women too, just as we used to refer to human beings of either sex as man. But when you read this today and encounter his, you think ‘hold on, don’t women wear Wellingtons?’. Most people nowadays would regard such a statement as rather dated and sexist. Fair enough, let’s say this instead:

How much can you tell about someone from his or her choice of Wellington boot?

You could also write his/her instead of his or her, and if the pronouns in question are subjective (he and she), you could use s/he:

If you’re allergic to oils or perfumes, remind your therapist before s/he lays hands on you.

This approach is inclusive of both males and females and works perfectly well in a single sentence, but it can become cumbersome and unwieldy if you have to keep repeating ‘his or her’ or ‘he or she’ in the same piece of writing.

How much can you tell about someone from his or her choice of Wellington boot? Is he or she marked out as middle class if he or she opts for a pair of Hunters?

An alternative would be to change the ‘someone’ from singular to plural, and reword the rest of the sentence if necessary:

How much can you tell about people from their choice of Wellington boot?

This can be a good solution, but it won’t always work (as with the second example, which can only refer to a singular therapist):

If you’re allergic to oils or perfumes, remind your therapists before they lay hands on you.

This leaves us with the final option: you can use plural forms such as their, they, etc., despite the fact that they don’t grammatically agree with the singular noun or pronoun they refer back to:

  How much can you tell about someone from their choice of Wellington boot?

This usage is increasingly common in current English and is now widely accepted both in speech and in writing, especially in contexts where a plural pronoun or possessive determiner follows an indefinite pronoun such as anyone, no one, or someone, as in the above example. As noted above, this isn’t even a new development: it’s found in the writings of such eminent figures as Shaw and Goldsmith.

A caveat…

Although also very common, the use of they after a singular noun is still anathema to many people, especially in formal contexts. If we were to choose this option:

 If you’re allergic to oils or perfumes, remind your therapist before they lay hands on you.

For our second example, we’d risk incurring much criticism that it was ungrammatical. This is in spite of the fact that the use of plural pronouns to refer back to a singular noun isn’t a sign of declining standards in modern English: it represents a revival of a practice dating from the 16th century, as the OED evidence makes clear:

He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues.

- J Fisher Wayes to Perfect Religion (before 1535)

The norms of English usage have never remained fixed for all time and this construction may well gain wider acceptance in the future. As always, if you’re writing in a very formal context, or if your organization has a style guide that expressly forbids such a practice, then it’s advisable to avoid it (or be prepared to argue your case and back it up with historical evidence, as I’ve done here!).