Wednesday, September 26, 2007 just made steam shoot out my ears.

See my profile at Check out what it says under "My Blog":

"This member doesn't have articles in their blog"

Perhaps my brain is just working its way into paper grading mode, and that's why I'm leaping out of my seat. "Their"? Who is "their"? "Member" is singular (that's why it's "This member doesn't," instead of "These member don't"--obviously the writer got the rest of the grammar right). "Their" is a plural possessive pronoun, and shouldn't be used to refer to a singular subject. The correct grammar form here is "his or her." Hell, since the site requires members to supply their genders, the site could choose correctly between "his" or "her."

I will rage, rage, rage, against using "they" or "their" as singular genderless pronouns. Sure, there's legitimate debate about the history and current usage of forms of "they" as singular pronouns, but I'll always stand firmly on one side of that debate. When I'm dead, I won't complain about this anymore. But not a day sooner.


  1. Anonymous2:15 PM

    Grammer is constantly changing, PV. We don't speak with the same sentence structure that we did 100 years ago and it's wildly different from 200 years ago. Now I'm not saying we should go as far as allowing text talk in one of your ENG Comp classes, but some changes needn't be shot out of the air. What about the royal "we." What's the difference between that and using "they" or "their" as singular and genderless? Is it just because it hasn't been done before? According to the Hazelweird league, you are against following the rules just because that's how it's always been.

  2. Grammar rules are always changing: in fact, "they" used to be genderless singular too until grammarians came along and said that's senseless, and now because people are stupid and lazy it's coming back (just kidding! About the stupid and lazy part--it is coming back). And it's fine in speech, appallingly ugly in print. But just as all language is constantly evolving, there are language traditionalists fighting these changes (France has a freaking governmental department devoted to resisting changes to the French language. Seriously). While I recognize and appreciate the organic nature of language as a whole, I'm staunchly in the grammar traditionalist camp, resisting some changes as lazy and stupid.

  3. Anonymous2:38 PM

    What about the rudness factor? What if you want to keep the gender of whoever you are talking about to yourself? Talking about transgender people can be difficult semantically (spell?) to try and nail down if "he" or "she" should be used.

    In German, isn't "they" used often, maybe not as a third person genderless singular, but as a second person genderless formal? What does the English language have to equal that? Raised by feminists, I really don't think that the gender is important unless you are on the make. If we can't use "they" for third person genderless singular, I demand to be able to use SOMETHING. If those of you in the grammar traditionalist camp resist change as lazy and stupid, lets fix this hole in the lexicon by finding a suitable replacement.

  4. Other languages do have a genderless singular pronoun, yes, and English does not. It's a lack and the source of this issue. And while I'm very sensitive to gender equality and gender identity (recall the post I wrote about assumed audience, in which I basically got called a PC thug), it doesn't mean I'll accept a plural pronoun being used for a singular subject. Never. I don't mind it in speech, but in print I find it atrociously ugly. I'll leap in outrage every time I see it in print, and I can't help it.

    Take heart: I'm probably on the side fighting a losing battle (but maybe, maybe not).

  5. Oh, and there is an option besides "they" or guessing at gender. You can just write "he or she." That's what I'm arguing for. I know some find that ugly, but it's not rude, presumptuous, or grammatically incorrect to say "This member has no articles in his or her blog."

  6. What I'm saying is, you demand to be able to use something. You can. You can use "he or she" or "his or her." The option is there.

  7. Or if you don't like "he or she," and it's possible in context, you can just make the initial subject plural.

    "A student should turn in his or her work on time" becomes "Students should turn in their work on time."

    It's not always possible to pluralize the entire sentence, but it's another option.

  8. Anonymous4:45 PM

    I iz in ur gramma, ruinin all yo wurdz.

  9. Anonymous8:18 AM

    There is to a genderless singular pronoun. It is in this sentence.

  10. That's true, but people don't usually like being called "it."

  11. Anonymous10:35 AM

    PV, unless you missed it, you haven't made any sort of argument for why the language shouldn't be allowed to change in this case.

    That's fine, but usually you have (and explain) reasons for things that you rage, rage, rage for against, so it's puzzling that you don't in this case.

    I'm way over my head in a grammar conversation with you, but do you also oppose the you/thou merger of 1451 (or whenver the heck it was --- I might be off by several centuries)? If not, then what's the difference? Several hundred years from now, will you support your great-great-great grandkids when they rage, rage, rage *for* they as a singular genderless pronoun in place of whatever the whippersnappers of that day are trying to replace it with?

  12. Anonymous10:36 AM

    Ugh, that should say:

    "unless *I* missed it"

  13. All grammar rules are subject to change, and the organic nature of language means many will change regardless of the desires of English profs. However, when it comes to grammar, I think there needs to be a reason for a change--not so much in speech, but definitely in writing.

    In this case, why use what is a plural pronoun to refer to a singular noun? It's a basic agreement problem, and in print, it is potentially confusing, and certainly ugly. There are options for the correct grammar: you can make the initial noun plural, or you can use "he or she." So to use a plural pronoun to refer to a singular noun seems unnecessary.

    To be clear, this is a rule for formal writing. There are all sorts of grammar rules we break in speech all the time, but these same grammar rules should no be broken in formal writing. Formal writing is supposed to appear professional and articulate, and failure to follow accepted rules of grammar can damage clarity and credibility.

    Of course, a lot of our rules of standard grammar are arbitrary (and in history, tied up pretty closely with class), and there is debate on the subject of "they/their" as singular. But according to wikipedia, a 2000 study by the American Heritage Dictionary, a panel of "of some 200 distinguished educators, writers, and public speakers" determined that in contemporary English, "their" cannot be used as singular pronoun (82% found it unacceptable).

    I certainly, then, will continue to teach my students that it is currently unacceptable (but when I do, I actually tell them that it's quite possible that in their lifetimes it will be acceptable). And I'll resist a change (even if inevitable) because I personally find the plural pronoun referring to a singular noun painful to my sight.

    Some better sources than me on the subject:

  14. By the way, the grammar stick isn't as far up my ass as I'm making it sound. I really enjoy conversations about grammar.

    Is my view entirely rational? I doubt it. Sometimes professors with radically liberal political views are ultra-conservative on language and literature (Harold Bloom is as traditionalist on literature as anybody you'll find, but I've heard him describe himself as a socialist). My views on grammar might be very different from my views on anything else, so I may struggle to justify a grammar rule, instead relying on irrational howling like "This is how it is done!"

  15. Anonymous11:51 AM

    Well, I guess I agree with you to an extent.

    I don't for a second doubt that 82% of all people with grammar sticks up their butts consider it wrong. And since these people might end up grading your essay or reading your job application or your article, I think you are correct to tell your students to use the currently-correct language instead of the soon-to-be-correct language in formal writing.

    The only difference between us is that you don't seem to see a reason for the language to change, while I do.

    I just find "he or she" distracting and kludgy, and I'd bet that 82% of all people agree with me on that. It takes slightly more effort to parse, and it calls attention to gender when gender has nothing to do with what's being written. I agree with you that the majority of all sentences with he/she in them could be re-written somehow to avoid it, and that's what I try to do whenever possible. But sometimes there's just no way around using a singular pronoun. And "their" is a perfectly good alternative in my view. Or at least it would be if people like you would understand that, when I write it, I'm participating in a revolution instead of being lazy and stupid.

    You don't oppose revolutions do you?????!!!! :-)

  16. Anonymous1:36 AM

    I know this post has been around awhile, but I just found it.

    PV, you say "he or she" is appropriate, and is not rude. I wonder if this is true, especially when I consider the folks who do not identify with a particular gender. I know they may be a small group, and many would find it "too PC" to worry about, but the use of a truly genderless person-oriented pronoun (not "it") seems like a better solution to me.