"He/She" or "They"? "His/Her" or "Their"?

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He/She or They? His/Her or Their?

Writers often ask whether they should refer to a singular person whose gender is unknown as "he," "she," "he or she," "he/she," or "they." Look at this example:
  • Each team leader is responsible for his / her / his or her / his/her / their team. He / She / He or She / He/She / They must report to the race marshal by 9 o'clock.
In this example, "each team leader" could be male or a female. So, which possessive determiners (e.g., his, her) and which personal pronouns (e.g., he, she) should we use?

his, her, their (singular or plural)

Choosing the Right Pronouns for a Person Whose Gender Is Unknown

When your singular person could be male or female, you have four options. (There used to be five options.) Here are the four acceptable options and the now-outdated fifth option listed from best practice to worst:

(Option 1) Reword your sentence to make it all plural.
  • All team leaders are responsible for their teams. They must report to the race marshal by 9 o'clock.
  • (If you can make your whole sentence plural, then the problem goes away. This is a tidy option.)
(Option 2) Use a singular "their."
  • Each team leader is responsible for their team. They must report to the race marshal by 9 o'clock.
  • (Treating "their" and "they" as singular is widely acceptable.)
More about singular "they"

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. However, it is safe to label that view as outdated, and all the leading style guides now support a singular "they" or "their." This practice has become so popular that the American Dialect Society voted "they" (as a gender-neutral singular pronoun) as the 2015 Word of the Year.

This point is not related to the issue of recognizing non-binary gender. It has come about because the English language does not have a pronoun that can be used for a singular person whose gender is unknown. Of course, we have "it." But, we don't use "it" for people.


(Option 3) Use "his or her" or "his/her."
  • Each team leader is responsible for his or her team. He or she must report to the race marshal by 9 o'clock.
  • (This is acceptable, and it can be a good option if you only use it once in your document. However, if you have several sentences using this option, it looks clumsy.)

(Option 4) Use a "his" or use "her" if you know that everyone is the same gender.
  • Each team leader is responsible for his team. He must report to the race marshal by 9 o'clock.
  • (This is acceptable if it is known that all team members are male. Similarly, "her" and "she" are acceptable if all are known to be female.)
(Option 5 - Outdated) Use "his" with a caveat.
  • Each team leader is responsible for his team. He must report to the race marshal by 9 o'clock.
  • (It used to be common for formal documents to include a caveat like this: "Throughout this document, 'he' means 'he or she,' and 'his' means 'his/her.'" However, it is now safe to label this practice as outdated.)

Why Do People Dislike a Singular "They" or "Their"?

Wherever there's a pronoun, which includes the personal pronouns (e.g., he, she, they) and the possessive determiners (e.g., his, her. their), then its antecedent (the thing it refers to) will not be far away. Look at these examples. The pronouns are highlighted and their antecedents are in bold.
  • 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 the antecedent of "their.")
  • Each of them gave their opinion.
  • (Here, the antecedent of "their" is "each," which is singular.)
Typically, a pronoun and its antecedent must agree in number. In other words, if the pronoun is singular, then the antecedent must be singular.

Below is the list of personal pronouns (in their various forms) showing "they" as a plural. This table is repeated in thousands of grammar books, very few of which recognize that "they" can be used as a singular.
PersonSubjective CaseObjective CasePossessive Case
Possessive Adjective
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

This table is the basis of the argument for those who dislike using "they" as a singular. It is true to say that grammar books haven't caught up yet. But, remember that, nowadays, "they" can have a singular antecedent. This allowance is necessary to cover the English language's lack of a singular gender-free pronoun that can be used for people.

More Examples

Here are some more examples of sentences featuring gender-free antecedents (bold) and related pronouns (highlighted):

(Option 1) Reword your sentence to make it all plural.
  • Please ask your guests to collect their coats before leaving.
  • They all gave their opinions.
  • The top students will be presented with awards. They must sit on the front row during the ceremony.
(Option 2) Use a singular "their."
  • Please ask your guest to collect their coat before leaving.
  • Each person gave their opinion.
  • The top student will be presented with an award. They must sit on the front row during the ceremony.
(Option 3) Use "his or her" or "his/her."
  • Please ask your guest to collect his or her coat before leaving.
  • Each person gave his/her opinion.
  • The top student will be presented with an award. He or she must sit on the front row during the ceremony.
(Option 4) Use a "his" or use "her" if you know that everyone is the same gender.
  • Please ask your guest to collect his coat before leaving.
  • Each person gave her opinion.
  • The top student will be presented with an award. She must sit on the front row during the ceremony.
(Option 5 - Outdated) Use "his" with a caveat.
  • Please ask your guest to collect his coat before leaving.
    ["His" means "his/her."]
  • Each person gave his opinion.
    ["His" means "his/her."]
  • The top student will be presented with an award. He must sit on the front row during the ceremony.
    ["He" means "he/she."]
Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What is an antecedent? What are possessive adjectives? What does singular mean? What does plural mean? Do you write try and or try to?