His/Her and Their
The Quick AnswerWhen your singular person could be male or female, you have three options: (1) use their, (2) use his/her, or (3) use his with a caveat. For example:
- Each team leader is responsible for their team. (Using their for a singular is acceptable despite what some might tell you.)
- Each team leader is responsible for his/her team. (This is acceptable, but it's a bit clumsy.)
- Each team leader is responsible for his team. (This is definitely acceptable if all team leaders are male. It's even acceptable if they're not (with a caveat explaining that his means his/her), but it runs the risk of appearing sexist.)
His/Her or Their?The word their can be singular. For example:
- Please ask your guest to collect their coat before leaving. (In this example, their refers back to guest, which is singular. The word guest is known as the antecedent of their.)
- Each of them gave their opinion. (Here, the antecedent of their is each, which is singular.)
Personal PronounsHere is a list of personal pronouns (in their various forms) showing their as a plural concept. (This is the basis of the argument for those who claim that their cannot be used as a singular.) Remember though, their can be used for a singular antecedent.
|Person||Subjective Case||Objective Case||Possessive Case|
Absolute Possessive Pronouns
|First Person Singular||I||me||my||mine|
|Second Person Singular||you||you||your||yours|
|Third Person Singular||he/she/it||him/her/it||his/her/its||his/hers/its|
|First Person Plural||we||us||our||ours|
|Second Person Plural||you||you||your||yours|
|Third Person Plural||they||them||their||theirs|
Options for His/Her and TheirWhen your singular person could be male or female, you have three options: (1) use their, (2) use his/her, or (3) use his with a caveat. For example:
- Please ask your guest to collect his/her coat before leaving. (This version will placate those who don't like their being used as a singular, but it is very untidy.)
- Please ask your guest to collect his coat before leaving. (This version can be used if you know all the guests are male. It could even be used if the guests are males and females, but this is likely to offend. It is fairly common to see a caveat at the start of a document (especially legal documents) which states "His is used throughout this document to denote male or female." However, this still runs the risk of appearing sexist.)
- Please ask your guest to collect their coat before leaving. (This is the best version.)
- Each person gave his/her opinion.
- Each person gave his opinion.
- Each person gave their opinion.
They Can Also Be SingularThe word they can be used as a singular when it is unknown whether the singular person is male or female. For example:
- The candidate must sign the waiver before they jump.
- The candidate must sign the waiver before he/she jumps.
- The candidate must sign the waiver before she jumps. (She can be used if it is known all candidates are female. Similarly, he can be used if all are male.)
Themselves Can Be Singular TooThe word themselves can be singular too. For example:
- Each person must introduce themselves before singing.
My Book Says They Is Plural!The word they is routinely described in grammar books as the "third-person plural personal pronoun", which is the reason many consider it wrong to use it as a singular.
If They Was Plural, It Isn't NowIn its 26th Annual Words of the Year vote, the American Dialect Society voted they (as a gender-neutral singular pronoun) the 2015 Word of the Year.
The society recognized they for its growing use "as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she".