“They” can be just one person

Say you’re a high school teacher addressing your class, reminding it of the consequences of turning in late papers.

“Any student who turns in a paper more than a week late will lose 20% of their grade.”

Their?? Shouldn’t that be “will lose 20% of his or her grade”? Singular student, singular pronoun?

Rise up, beleaguered writers, and claim the obvious solution! Most of us automatically use “their” as the pronoun to describe a single individual so we don’t have to concede to the dreadfully gender-biased “him” as the default. (“If someone has a problem with you, start by hearing them out,” not “start by hearing him or her out.”] To suggest that one should go back and twist a written sentence to suit an outdated rule ignores this elegant, colloquial solution.  Sure, he or she could rewrite his or her sentences to cravenly avoid the problem, but we don’t similarly edit our speech, do we?

“They” is a functional, understood, gender-neutral pronoun. And if a reader doesn’t like it, they can rewrite to their own standards. But leave the rest of him or her alone.

[ While this post conforms to the American convention of putting periods and commas inside the end quotation mark, it consciously breaks old-school rules prohibiting split infinitives, sentence fragments, and starting a sentence with “and” or “but.” ]


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