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Is it correct to use “their” instead of “his or her”?

I, and many people I have heard, occasionally use 'they' and 'their' in the singular when gender is not known. For example,

Someone burgled our house yesterday. They must've cut their head on the broken window, because there is blood there.

I would like to know:

  • Is this incorrect or not used in some places?
  • If not, I have read, such as in style books, the awkwardness of not assuming certain people are a 'he' or 'she' and using 'his' and 'hers' with them respectively, thereby having to say 'the reader... he/she should...his/her'. Why don't they simply use 'they' and 'their'?
  • Is this a recent development in English?
  • Is this type of usage present in other languages (pronouns for both genders)?
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marked as duplicate by Robusto, Manoochehr, Mehper C. Palavuzlar, RegDwigнt, nohat Feb 27 '11 at 16:32

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3 Answers 3

This is called singular they and is highly controversial. Some forms are more acceptable than others. It is a old usage and Caxton wrote in the 15th century something like

Each of them should ... make themself ready

though I suspect many people might now prefer themselves to make the clash of grammatical number less obvious. Here are are four examples of which the first is probably most widely acceptable, and the fourth least.

  • Students should work by themselves
  • Each student should work by themselves
  • Students should work by themself
  • Each student should work by themself

The answer where possible is to rewrite to either of

  • Students should work alone
  • Each student should work alone

and then there will be no objection.

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1  
Are you sure it's "highly" controversial really? What I observe is more of a storm in a very small teacup among those who generally like to generate linguistic storms in teacups at every opportunity... –  Neil Coffey Feb 27 '11 at 14:31
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It is a small teacup, but my real point is that the stage at which people become uncomfortable with singular they and the point they are certain it is wrong varies over a wide range of types of phrases that it is impossible to be comfortable with any rule. –  Henry Feb 27 '11 at 16:31

This is an old problem. Please see this comprehensive history and analysis of "singular they."

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It's perfectly common and acceptable to a large number of speakers and writers. It is also common and acceptable, for example, in the drafting of legal documents. So it is perfectly acceptable to write in a contract e.g. "The Vendor declares that they will..." rather than "he or she" or another circumlocution.

It is quite common across languages for a "plural" pronoun to also refer to a singular, or vice versa, and indeed to refer to different persons generally. A couple of examples in "mainstream" languages are German "Sie" and French "vous" and "on".

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1  
I take very strong exception to your use of the term "perfectly acceptable" above. "Singular they" is widely considered a severe fault and sloppy, careless usage. No matter where it appears or in what context, it is not "perfectly acceptable." It cannot be, because so many consider it to be ungrammatical. It is controversial, and has been so for hundreds of years. You simply do not have the ability in your response above to make a flat declaration that you, personally, have resolved the matter and that it is no longer problematic. You can't do that. –  The Raven Feb 27 '11 at 16:12
    
I think you misread my answer slightly. I'm not claiming to have "resolved the matter". But what I am claiming is that there are contexts (e.g. specifically legal contracts and other legal usage) where the usage/interpretation of singular "they" potentially matters, and practitioners have considered the issue and decided that as a de facto standard, the use of "they" in this way is acceptable. –  Neil Coffey May 2 at 17:24
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Incidentally, it hasn't really been controversial for hundreds of years. The "controversy" was invented in the 19th century; before then, "they" appears to have bobbed along quite happily with a various singular usages essentially going back for as long as the word "they" is recognisable as such... –  Neil Coffey May 2 at 17:26

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