By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated, November 11, 2013)
A lot of people are confused about whether they should use singular pronouns such as him/her/he/she/his/hers or plural pronouns such as they/their in various types of sentences.
Pronouns such as each, someone, somebody, everyone, everybody, anyone, anybody, no one, nobody, each, every, either, and neither* should be paired with singular pronouns: her, his, she, he, herself, himself, its, itself – not they or their. Someone left their troll doll on the table is technically wrong, though people are increasingly using this sort of construction to avoid the sexist and outdated practice of using he, him, and his to refer to both genders. However, although using they has become common, grammar purists object to it.
A popular strategy for avoiding sexist language while maintaining grammatically correct sentences is to use both gender pronouns:
Someone left his or her troll doll on the table.
This can become awkward, especially if you have to keep saying him or her, his or hers, or he or she.
Common solutions to this problem include alternating between using the male and female pronouns or just using female pronouns in an attempt to make up for centuries of using male pronouns to represent all people, but the latter solution is equally sexist. An easy way to solve the problem is to avoid the use of pronouns altogether:
Someone left a troll doll on the table.
In many cases, when referring to people, you can simply make the subject plural:
Each student received his or her textbooks on the first day of school becomes All students received their textbooks on the first day of school.
If a participant asks for more information, give him or her the link to this website becomes If participants ask for more information, give them the link to this website.
If any person objects, let him or her speak now becomes If any people object, let them speak now.
What about collective nouns such as team, staff, family, jury, herd, flock, dozen, number, or band? These may take a singular or plural verb depending on the situation:
The jury took their seats but The jury delivered its verdict. (It depends on whether the jury is acting individually, each taking a seat, or collectively providing a verdict.)
The number of people who watch movies in DVD format has decreased in recent years but A large number of people have switched to other formats. (In the first sentence, the verb is actually linked to the singular word number because that’s what has increased; in the second, it’s linked to the plural word people because it’s the people who are switching formats.)
*There is an exception to the either/neither rule; sometimes either or neither, when accompanied by or or nor, may be plural. For example: Neither dogs nor campfires were permitted at the park. However, in most cases, either and neither will take singular pronouns:
Either Jenna or Trina left her sketches of dancing unicorns all over the table.
Neither of the boys admitted to leaving his underwear in the refrigerator.
- Capital Community College Foundation. (n.d.). “Plural Noun Forms.”
- O’Conner, P. T. (1996). Woe Is I, the Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
- Oxford Dictionaries. (2013). “‘He or She’ versus ‘They‘.” OxfordDictionaries.com.
- OWL at Purdue. (2013). “Using Pronouns Clearly.” The Writing Lab & the OWL at Purdue and Purdue University.