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Either Tom or Sam will give their book.

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closed as off topic by Peter Shor , Barrie England, Robusto, tchrist, RegDwigнt Feb 1 '13 at 12:53

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This is the singular "they"; a possible duplicate of Is there a correct gender-neutral, singular pronoun ("his" versus "her" versus "their")? – Peter Shor Feb 1 '13 at 12:07
To remove the flaw (which only some people say is a flaw), use 'Either Tom or Sam will give his book'. If this isn't the flaw you see, please edit your question. – Peter Shor Feb 1 '13 at 12:09
@Peter: Ambiguity is always a flaw unless it's a deliberate strategy or tactic. If you disagree with that, then any advice you give about using language should be restricted to those who benefit from deliberate ambiguity: politicians, confidence men & women (crooks, IOW), & fortune tellers. – user21497 Feb 1 '13 at 12:44
In its current form, this is off-topic as per the FAQ. "[P]lease, don’t ask any questions about [...] proofreading ("are there any mistakes?"), unless the source of concern is clearly specified." And if the concern is the their, then, as others have pointed out already, this question is a duplicate and on top of that your proposed solution has flaws of its own. – RegDwigнt Feb 1 '13 at 12:58
@BillFranke it is not necessarily ambiguous at all. In a given context it could be clear we mean a single book of which Tom and Sam have shared ownership. Their would hence be clearly in the plural, and the precise meaning clear. In another given context, it could be clear that they each had a book, their was singular and while some may argue against that, there would be no ambiguity. It's only ambiguous as to a given piece of information when lacking context, but sentences need not convey everything unassisted by its fellows. – Jon Hanna Feb 1 '13 at 12:59
up vote 3 down vote accepted

There are two ways a computer program might parse this sentence:

1) Either (Tom) or (Sam will give their book).

In a programming language, this could be a condition requiring one of the brackets to be true. "Tom" would probably always be "true", as it doesn't really ask for any condition, it simply requires the existence of Tom. However, this is not how humans usually parse spoken language.

This would be how a human should see the sentence:

2) (Either Tom) (or Sam) will give their book.

It should be clear by now, however, that we're dealing with singular their here, therefore in both cases it points back to only one of the persons mentioned.

Now, to answer your question:

There's nothing really wrong with the sentence, grammatically, but if you're worried that your audience consists of mathematicians, physicists, programmers and geeks, you'll want to be careful and rephrase it to:

Either Tom will give his book, or Sam will give his book. (One of them has to!)

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Either Tom or Sam will give the book.

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To me, this implies that there is only one book (depending on context). In your original sentence, there were two books. – Peter Shor Feb 1 '13 at 12:11
Exactly as @PeterShor says, this is very different and definitely not an equivalent of the original sentence. – RiMMER Feb 1 '13 at 12:17
@Frant: You're both wrong. The sentence is ambiguous. We don't know whether Tom & Sam jointly own one book or whether they each own their own copy of the same book. The sentence isn't programming language, it's natural language, so it doesn't matter how a program or a programmer would parse it. All that matters is how a person (HUMAN BEING) would parse and understand it. This is, after all, EL&U, not Stack Overflow. – user21497 Feb 1 '13 at 12:26
@Peter: Your inference is incorrect. Either T or S will give "the book" to someone or something. Only one book will be given, but T may have one copy & S may have one copy or T & S may both own the same copy because they bought it together. T may be the husband & S may be the wife. We can't know any of this given the lack of context (we know nothing about T & S but their androgynous names. BTW, I used to work with a woman named "Robert": I saw her birth certificate & passport, so I know that that was her honest-to-god real, legal name -- her father wanted a boy). – user21497 Feb 1 '13 at 12:52
@BillFranke and as a human being I react with expecting to know what "the book" is from some context other than this sentence. There's a lack of information in the original as to whether the book or books are jointly or individually owned, if separate whether they are copies or differ. There's a lack of information here as to the context in which the definite argument is working. It's a different lack, and therefore the sentences are not equivalent. They could both serve in a given context, but there are some where one would, and the other would not. – Jon Hanna Feb 1 '13 at 12:54

If there is one book, jointly owned by Tom and Sam, then everybody will agree that

Either Tom or Sam will give their book.

is perfectly correct.

If each of Tom and Sam has a book, then some people say you should not use "their" in this case (although some native English speakers have been using it this way for centuries). To make these people happy, you should say:

Either Tom or Sam will give his book.

The problem with this correction is that Tom and Sam might be of opposite sexes, and many people no longer approve of using "his" as the default pronoun for either sex, which is why you should use "their" in this case. See this question.

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It is both grammatically and semantically flawed if the sentence wants to say that one of those two people will give (someone or something) one book that belongs to one of them (to Tom or Sam) or to both of them.

If you know that Tom & Sam are male, then you fix the sentence by saying his book.
If Tomasina & Samantha are female, then you fix the sentence by saying her book.
If one is male & the other female, or if their gender is unknown, you fix the sentence by saying {the/a[CHOOSE ONE]} book.

I think that someone (John Lawler?) said in answer to another question about singular their yesterday that it shouldn't be used referentially for individual persons. I agree. "Everyone will give their book" is acceptable and idiomatic; "Tom will give their (meaning "Tom's") book" is not; "Every {man/woman[CHOOSE ONE]} will give their book" should be "Every {man/woman[CHOOSE ONE]} will give {his/her} book".

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Apart from disagreeing with you on singular their, I note that in the first two, like the question, I am informed that the book belongs to the individual in question. In the third I am expected to have a context in which I can infer which book "the book" refers to. It is not equivalent. – Jon Hanna Feb 1 '13 at 12:23
@Jon: We can agree to disagree on matters of religion & politics, I think (singular their as an acceptable gender-neutral pronoun is both). As for having to infer who the owner of the book is, that may or may not be germane, but using singular their forces you to have to make the same inference: It does not imply that there are two books, nor does it imply that there is one book. It implies only that the speaker/writer is being politically hypercorrect by using a solecism, praise the lord. – user21497 Feb 1 '13 at 12:37
I don't think one can be hypercorrect in using something one was taught against in school, but never dropped, as would be the case for many of us. If anything, were it a conscious decision it would be more hypocorrect, than anything. That said, considering the company they'd be keeping, I'm inclined to consider the idea that it must always be avoided as the hypercorrection, particularly in cases of distribution like this. – Jon Hanna Feb 1 '13 at 12:48
@Jon: It mustn't always be avoided. I didn't say that. Neither must the passive always be avoided. I don't agree with that either. Silly rules must be avoided. I don't know what "something one was taught against in school" means. I said "politically hypercorrect". I didn't think I'd have to spell that out for you or anyone else: hyper-PC. We're not talking strictly about real language here but about PC language. You're right that English-speakers have been misusing English ab initio. But just because they did, must we too? Or let the dead we agree with tell us how to speak & write? – user21497 Feb 1 '13 at 13:05
My parents and I have been using singular their since well before the women's movement ... I believe it was one of the "mistakes" that my teachers tried to correct in school. – Peter Shor Feb 1 '13 at 13:10

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