His, Her, His or Her, Their or Its

His or Her?

Yumi bought a book by Supernanny Jo Frost called Supernanny by Jo Frost. Thumbing through it reminded me of a discussion in an English class I had at the university. The topic was about what gender should be used for the third-person singular pronoun when the gender of the people involved is unknown or mixed.

What should we use for the following sentence?

A) Everyone had his grammar book.
B) Everyone had her grammar book.
C) Everyone had his or her grammar book.
D) Everyone had their grammar book.

‘Everyone’ is a singular indefinite pronoun (for a list of singular and plural indefinite pronouns see the bottom of this Wikipedia page). This means A and B and C are alright but D is a grammatical no-no.

A is sexist.
B is reverse discrimination.
C is downright silly.
and D is ungrammatical.

I just go with the traditional A. It has worked for a thousand years and I am not aware of a single case where using ‘his’ caused any physical harm to a ‘her.’

To further validate this usage, I have yet to receive a single death threat from a feminist grammarian.

But just to help you make an informed decision on this most important topic, This site is pretty good. The writer (he or she?!) states ‘his’ should be used. However for the gender conscience, the writer (he or she?!) recommends one of two options:

1. Use the phrase his or her. It is a little awkward, but OK.

Correct: Is everyone happy with his or her gift?

2. Rewrite the sentence using a plural pronoun or antecedent. Plural personal pronouns in English no longer distinguish between masculine and feminine.

Correct: Are all the people happy with their gifts?

Wikipedia has this to say about the tendency to throw traditional grammar to the wind so as to not offend:

At present, singular indefinite pronouns cause one of the most consistent deviations from Standard Academic English. Writers from all backgrounds, will tend to use plural pronouns to try to refer to those singular antecedents like “someone,” “somebody,” “no one,” “everyone,” “anyone,” “nobody,” “anybody,” and “everybody.” For instance, while the sentence: “Everybody had their matching towels,” may sound better than: “Everybody had his or her matching towel,” the second sentence is considered Standard Academic English because of the singular nature of “Everybody.” More and more, a dual singular-plural function for these pronouns is becoming second-nature in spoken English.

I’m starting to think we should just use ‘its’ and offend everyone equally!

Back to Supernanny. I’ve only read a little bit, but it looks like she has a sneaky but brilliant solution to this problem of problems. She simply alternates between ‘his’ in one paragraph and ‘her’ in another.

For example:

“After a child has taken his first step, things will have started to get even more interesting. He will have been launched like a NASA probe into a whole new stage of mobility.”

The very next paragraph has this:

“From now until around three years old, your child is officially a ‘toddler.’ She’s no longer a baby, but she doesn’t have anything like the skills, physical, mental or social, that she’ll have by her first day at school.”

I could go on with many more examples, but I don’t want to spoil the plot for you.

If you have a second, please post a comment letting me know what you do. His, her, his or her, their? Let the reader take up its keyboard and comment! (no offense intended)

6 thoughts on “His, Her, His or Her, Their or Its

  1. It’s always interesting to see other people’s opinions on these sorts of things.

    Personally, I’ve always used “their” in these sorts of contexts just because that’s what I picked up when I was younger, though one or two people have mentioned to me that it’s not the proper way to do it.

    When I don’t use their I use his, but that’s not all that often.

  2. It’s a losing situation no matter what you say. I bet in 100 years ‘their’ will be considered ‘Standard Academic English.’

    Thanks for the comment!

  3. If you consider everybody to deal with the complete group or to be representative of a single individual within a group then it would be a singular and hence use his, her or ‘his or her’ but if you consider it to be a group of individuals it would be plural and hence use their.

    It all bogs down to context and at that point it gets complicated.

    I usually use their as I consider everybody to be a group of individuals and hence plural. (of course I could still use his, her and his or her in specific situations but as my head hurts even thinking about it I don’t).

  4. It may seem natural to use ‘their’ since we are used to hearing it now, but I don’t know if ‘everybody’ could ever be plural. It is one of those weird pronouns that refer to several people but is singular.

    For example you wouldn’t say, “Are everybody ready?” (plural) but you would say, “Is everybody ready?” (singular usage)

    Wikipedia’s ‘everybody’ page:

  5. The following I got from my Collins Concise Dictionary 21st Century Edition.

    [Their] 3rd definition: Belonging to or associated with an indefinite antecedent such as one, whoever, or anybody: everyone should bring their own lunch.

    Usage Note: It was formerly considered correct to use he, him, or his after pronouns such as everyone, no-one, anyone, or someone as in everyone did his best. Nowadays it is probably more common to use they, them, or their, in order to avoid referring specifically to one gender, and this use has become acceptable in all but the most formal contexts: everyone did their best.

    I bought my dictionary in 2003 whilst on holiday. So this use has been acceptable at least from that time.

  6. I wonder what the OED has to say. Anyone have access to a copy or the online version? I would have to go to the university library in the next city over 🙂 (Don’t think I won’t though!)

    There isn’t any doubt, at least in American English, ‘their’ is most used. Perhaps we are past the tipping point where usage overrules the old hard and fast rules, but we’ll see.

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