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I know that the sentence "David or Michael forgot to take his parasol" is correct.

But what about the case when two opposite genders are connected by or?

David or Alice forgot to take _ parasol.

Which pronoun fits the blank?

Likewise when or connects plural and singular nouns. E.g., "either the manager or his assistants failed in their duty" is fine, but what if I switch them around?

Either the assistants or their manager failed in _ duty.

Again, which pronoun should be used here?

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The first is lend a hand so gender doesn't matter. The second sounds like a case for using the singular they. –  Andrew Leach Apr 8 '14 at 11:27
Ok. I just took an example. What if the sentence is different ,connected by OR with opposite genders on both sides ! –  MegaRacer Apr 8 '14 at 11:29
David or Alice must lend a hand. The idiom is lend a hand not lend his hand. –  Andrew Leach Apr 8 '14 at 11:30
True. I picked it from Wren and Martin. And I guess you have got the sense of what is my main concern. Still you haven't addressed the concern. –  MegaRacer Apr 8 '14 at 12:54

3 Answers 3

up vote 3 down vote accepted

If you insist on keeping the structure of the sentence as it is, and there is either a gender or a singular/plural clash, use their and pull up the drawbridge. On the question of personal pronouns it's impossible to be both grammatically correct and politically correct in all cases, but their is the choice that will offend or annoy the least number of people.

A better solution, of course, is to re-cast the sentence with a different structure to avoid the problem altogether.

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In the second sentence, can I assume that there is nothing to do with "nearest noun" thing . There is a rare belief that pronoun is written according to as what is the nearest noun. So assuming manager is male. Can I fill in the blank with HIS . –  MegaRacer Apr 8 '14 at 13:00
@kushai You mean, "Either the assistants or their manager failed in his duty"? I wouldn't go along with any "nearest noun" rule, which strikes me as a post facto rule to justify a grammatical inconsistency. If you have to breach grammar, do it in a way which is least likely to draw attention. In my view, "his" would draw far more attention that "their". –  Terpsichore Apr 8 '14 at 13:23
Thank you . Please suggest something for the first sentence as well. –  MegaRacer Apr 8 '14 at 13:26
@kushai I would choose their for that one as well. But only if forced. I would much prefer "a parasol". As I said, avoiding the problem altogether is favourite. –  Terpsichore Apr 8 '14 at 13:34

To "address the concern" which I haven't in comments...

David OR Michael forgot to take his parasol
David OR Alice forgot to take __ parasol
Either the manager or his assistants failed in their duty.
Either the assistants or their manager failed in __ duty.

In all of these instances — including the very first one, replacing histheir is acceptable no matter what the sex or the grammatical number of the antecedents is. Their can apply to a singular person as well as more than one.

Belonging to or associated with a person of unspecified sex:
she heard someone blow their nose loudly

[ODO] (my emphases)

There are those who would prefer to use his in the first example as both the alternatives would take that pronoun. But that does not preclude the use of their.

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Sir , you can now edit the answer as I have edited my first sentence . And manager is a male, still you want me to use THEIR and not his ? –  MegaRacer Apr 8 '14 at 13:11
@kushai: yes. Singular they refers to either gender. That includes males. –  RegDwigнt Apr 8 '14 at 14:22

Political correctness being highly valued in the Anglo-Saxon world, the singular pronoun "they" (them, their, theirs) is used instead of "he or she" (him or her, his or her, his or hers) whenever a noun which is not gender-marked is used (teacher, doctor, someone, anyone, etc). "They" has the merit of being unisex (not offending women by not mentioning that a doctor can be a she as well as a he) and shorter than "he or she"… or "she or he" (which should have precedence…?).

David or Alice – I cannot remember which – had better mind their own business!

(rather than "his or her own business")

Either the assitants or their manager failed in their duty.

("manager" is not gender marked, so "their" replaces "his or her" or a real – plural – "their": it is plural if it is the assitants' fault, and singular if it is the manager's fault, but that does not change anything to the sentence)

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