My Students Want a Neuter Singular

I’ve been reading draft student papers. One extremely common locution goes like this: “If a person does [something] then their liability will be [whatever].” That “their” is there because students don’t want to say “his” or “her” nor use the clunky “his or her”. English doesn’t currently offer a neuter word; “their” is a plural when the grammar requires a singular, but to my students’ ear that is less of an issue than picking a single gender to refer to both.

Why exactly they don’t pluralize the whole thing (“If people do [whatever] then their liability will be [whatever]“) I don’t know.

This language shift suggests that at some time in the future the non-prescriptivist definition of “their” will shift to include a role a neuter singular possessive. But I don’t believe we are there yet on “their” so I’m marking “their” up whenever I find it misused.

Then again, I may be behind the times: Dictionary.com already offers “their” a secondary singular meaning:

2. (used after an indefinite singular antecedent in place of the definite masculine form his or the definite feminine form her): Someone left their book on the table. Did everyone bring their lunch?

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5 Responses to My Students Want a Neuter Singular

  1. foosion says:

    Their has been used as a singular pronoun for a long time. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they

  2. David Gross says:

    I think you’re behind. I’m probably among the more pedantic English users, and I don’t bat an eye at this one. It strikes me as a logical evolution of the language more than a decay of it.

    I’ve read some amusing attempts to force gender-neutral pronouns into English (‘te’, ‘tes’, and ‘tir’ I think were one example). I think Americans will go metric before this sort of thing catches on.

    I’m amused, though, that in Spanish, where I usually have to be so gender-conscious, contrary to the language habits I learned as a native English speaker, I can blissfully use the possessive adjective “su” without having to worry about gender, whereas we have to use “his”/”her” or (if we’re unafraid) “their” in English.

  3. Matt says:

    English doesn’t currently offer a neuter word; “their” is a plural

    You’ve been wrong about this for a very, very long time. “Their” is a completely acceptable neuter singular, and has been for hundreds of years. Even if that weren’t so, it would be time to get off of the prescriptive high-horse.

  4. Vic says:

    Aside from the other arguments that it is acceptable is the more basic one that English, UNLIKE most other languages, is still considered a living language, able to grow and change according to usage (try doing that with French). The basic rule is that if everyone does something and understands the word usage, then it is acceptable. Obviously, there is some limitation to this, but it is not “their” used as a singular.

    Do you also grade “you” and “thou” accordingly?

  5. This is part of the dialect I grew up speaking in Yorkshire as a child. It wasn’t until I got to university and wrote the word “themself” in a report that I realised not everyone spoke this way.

    One consequence of using it is that to this day, I never collapse gender to male or female unless I actually know it. I’ve had extended email conversations with people with names like “Stef” whom I’m due to meet in real life, and only while actually sitting down in the hotel lobby watching people arrive have I realised that I don’t know if I’m looking for a man or a woman.

    Also, I’d like to sound a note of caution if you plan on “correcting” this usage. I mentioned the singular they in my book, Designing Virtual Worlds, because gender in language was an issue for the textual worlds of yore. I used it throughout, and it was duly replaced by “he or she” by the editor, until they got to the chapter where I explained about the singular they and how and why I’d used it. The editor then had to go back and undo all the changes. If you do decide to mark against it, make sure it isn’t there for some reason to do with the content of what you’re marking before you go ahead.

    Richard

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