Links in this essay will take you to information about the usage experts and their work. Numbers in parentheses are page references in the sources.
Pronoun-antecedent agreement (they to refer to singular nouns)
In everyday speech, we wouldn’t think twice about sentences like these:
If a driver refuses to take a blood or breath test, they will have their license suspended for six months.
Everyone packed their own lunch for the picnic.
In formal writing, however, we are bound by the rules of grammar to avoid using the plural pronouns they and their to refer to a singular noun like driver or a singular indefinite pronoun like Everyone.
Traditional solutions such as substituting he and his for they and their are no longer acceptable because they are considered sexist. And he or she and him or herare too wordy and too hard to sustain over long stretches of prose.
Some writers throw up their hands and ask, "Why not allow they and their to be either singular or plural and be done with it?" They could cite historical precedent in their favor: According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language , the use of their as singular dates “back at least to 1300, and over the years such constructions have been used by many admired writers.”
Using the plural pronoun “is the most convenient solution to the single biggest problem in sexist language—the generic masculine pronoun,” according to Bryan Garner. Yet most experts are reluctant to abandon the rule altogether. Some feel that the rule on pronoun agreement has a logical rationale worth preserving: Singular goes with singular and plural with plural. Barbara Wallraff argues that allowing they to be either singular or plural could lead to confusion, as in this example:
Each topic in the self-esteem curriculum is covered in detail, so that the children may be aware of their importance.
"Is that the topic's importance or the children's?" writes Wallraff (32). If theircan be either singular or plural, it could refer to topic or to children.
If we allow they to be either singular or plural for the purposes of pronoun agreement, we arrive at another grammatical conundrum: what to do about subject-verb agreement. Consider the following sentence:
A year later, someone finally admitted that they were involved in the kidnapping.
Assuming that the word they can be singular (to match someone), should we write "admitted that they was involved"? Let's hope not! But allowing they to be both singular and plural in the same sentence creates more problems than it solves.
In fact, several other solutions are both easy and grammatical:
MAKING THE NOUN PLURAL
If drivers refuse to take a blood or breath test, they will have their licenses suspended for six months.
RESTRUCTURING THE SENTENCE
Drivers who refuse to take a blood or breath test will have their licenses suspended for six months.
A year later, someone finally admitted being involved in the kidnapping.
And a few other strategies will work at least some of the time:
- Dropping the pronoun
- Changing the pronoun to the or a
- Repeating the noun
- Finding another clever way to write around the problem
If the usage panel of The American Heritage Dictionary is any indication, experts are increasingly leaning toward accepting the plural pronoun they or their to refer to a singular noun: Between 1996 and 2011, disapproval of such usage decreased from 80 percent to 55 percent.
Garner acknowledges that “disturbing though these developments may be to purists, they’re irreversible. And nothing that a grammarian says will change them.” Still, in your own writing, it’s safest to be aware that many readers will expect you to observe “singular with singular and plural with plural” when choosing pronouns.
Source: Hacker Handbooks (Boston: Bedford, 2013).