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Is it acceptable to write: A person can develop their talent. or a person can develop their uniqueness? In this case the person is used as a general term, not a specific person.

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marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, tchrist, bib, Elliott Frisch, Edwin Ashworth Aug 20 at 20:29

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One can develop one's talent is the more traditional formulation. But here "one" means "a person". What you have written is therefore perfectly acceptable. –  Ben Aug 19 at 13:26
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Person used like this is not plural; it is generic. –  John Peyton Aug 19 at 14:45
    
It's not that "person" is plural, it's that the plural pronoun is being used as if it were singular to avoid the gender issue. –  Hot Licks Aug 19 at 17:03
    
Since many people (still) object to this use of they, you might want to avoid it if you want to play it safe. However, considering the genre you are writing in, I don't think this should concern you; more people will probably object to uniqueness. –  Cerberus Aug 20 at 14:19

3 Answers 3

The question here is not really whether or not person can be used in the plural, but whether or not they (and its relatives) can be used in the singular. "Singular they" has a long and strong tradition in English, going back to a time long before the idea of gender neutrality became a concern. Feel free to use it in any formal or informal writing where it is not prohibited by a style guide (or an editor with strong, though misguided, opinions). Yes, some self-appointed grammar mavens may crow and grumble. Let them; they think it's fun, and you'd be doing them a favour.

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+1 and just tell those self-appointed mavens that you'll stop using the singular they the very second they stop using the singular you. Same thing, really. –  RegDwigнt Aug 19 at 10:38
    
@RegDwigнt "..using the singular you. Same thing, really", You are a moderator, Reg, is that supposed to be a joke? –  bobie Aug 19 at 11:02
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@bobie - Not at all. At least singular they goes back to Middle English; replacing thou, thee (and ye, for that matter) with you is, relatively speaking, newfangled sloppiness that should be eradicated. –  bye Aug 19 at 14:13
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I would stress that singular they is used only in the generic singular. "If someone comes in give them a leaflet" is correct, "if Sam comes in give them a leaflet" is not –  Richard Tingle Aug 19 at 15:32
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@RichardTingle they might be appropriate if you don't know if Sam is male or female! It's much less appropriate for George or Victoria. –  curiousdannii Aug 20 at 9:41

This is not a plural as much as a nonspecific singular. "Their" is being used as a singular they and as such does not imply plural.

This is an unusual case as you are referring to a single, but unknown person as an example of people in general, I would probably say that this is correct but there are better methods of phrasing this for clarity, such as:

One can develop one's talent

As mentioned by @Ben in the comments. This is a more specific way of making it obvious you are using an nonspecific singular.

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Could you please elaborate on what you would understand to be “better” methods? I can certainly concur that if one were to take pedantry and a certain upper-class air as “better”, your method of phrasing could share that epithet. –  oerkelens Aug 20 at 12:23
    
@oerkelens What I meant by better, which itself is ironically unclear, is that the suggested phrase is clearer and has no ambiguity, in the original phrase "their" could in theory refer to anyone, while one can only refer to the subject themselves. –  Vality Aug 20 at 12:26
    
@oerkelens As the original phrase could feasibly refer to a teacher as "a person" and the teacher's class as "their" for example. –  Vality Aug 20 at 12:28
    
You would need quite some context to make that interpretation a realistic one... you would have to introduce at least the patients of the development (in casu, your class). With the sentence standing on it's own, the only possible referent for their is a person. –  oerkelens Aug 20 at 12:33

'a person' is singular, then the normal sentence is: "a person can develop his/ her talent".

The general term for 'a person' is 'people': "people can develop their talent". 'a person' is used with the meaning of 'any person/ everybody' when it is an antecedent in another (usually subordinate) clause.

The use of 'their' is justified for pronouns like: 'anybody', 'everybody', 'who' which although singular, have a general, indeterminate meaning.

'a person' is singular and precisely determined by the determinative article 'a', if you use 'their' in the same clause it is not considered a mistake, it is widely accepted, but you should be aware you are making a choice of style.

If you want to understand the issue see this article, you can see when it is an antecedent.

Members who are downvoting and feel 'cool' should remember that in this forum we should teach standard English to foreigners. It is not a matter of being 'prescriptive' or a 'maven'.

'a person' followed by 'their' in a single clause is a limit case, is colloquial and should not be suggested as a model to a beginner, or at least he should be informed of the issue.

+1 and just tell those self-appointed mavens that you'll stop using the singular they the very second they stop using the singular you. Same thing, really. – RegDwigнt

Not at all. At least singular they goes back to Middle English; replacing thou, thee (and ye, for that matter) with you is, relatively speaking, newfangled sloppiness that should be eradicated. – bye

Can you explain why singular "they" should not be taught to foreigners? It has been used (including by famous authors) for hundreds of years. – Peter Shor

There is some confusion here. I did not say it should not be taught, I said it should not be indicate as the only model as they have done in the other answer. Please read again, with more attention, my post. I am saying that we should give a foreigner/beginner a complete, fair, non subjective information. Even if you are not a teacher, you might agree that we start with the general rule and then teach the exception.

I will not analyze the issue in depth, because the audience here is not receptive, and sometimes hostile, bullyish. "...Yes, some self-appointed grammar mavens may crow and grumble"

I hope bye or RegDwight can prove me wrong, but they are not doing a good service to OP. They are confusing him: "singular you" does not exist, it is a fiction of their mind. The use of 'you' instead of 'thou' is a completely different story it is a tu-vos distinction and has a class (then 'sociolinguistic') justification.

Another confusion has been made in the comments between 'singular they' (that regards 'concord/agreement') and 'epicene they' which, again, is a completely different issue with a 'sexist' justification.

Bottom line: 'singular they' has a strong tradition, but that it is not a good reason to generalize and use it indiscriminately. I suppose.

start with the rule and then teach the exception." You mean an outdated, prescriptivist "rule", or the actual "hey, how is this actually used a lot"-rule?- oerkelens

You identify a general rule of current usage with a prescriptive rule about 'how it was'/ 'how it should be'. I have given in this post an example: I have been objective and all-comprehensive. The trouble in this site is that every native with a certain education assumes he has THE TRUTH, and, if he feels it sounds right, then it must be right even without checking up with a dictionary: even when I gave a US speaker a link he went on rambling that it is 'bad' English.

Here, the OP is a foreigner and a beginner. You must tell him the general usage of "a person vs. people", than explain the historical development through everyone etc., and at the end of the lecture you can tell him that if he uses 'their' not many will disapprove.

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It's the general practice on Stack Exchange websites to quote from sources to which one links. First it prevents "link rot". If your linked source goes offline no one will have any idea what you're talking about. Second it shows some editorial effort on your part. "You can see when" - can you show us when? –  Matt Gutting Aug 19 at 12:33
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@bobie How do you know the student will be a he and not a she? If you go around doing that in your essays at uni or in business reports, then you'll offend people. Exactly why 'singular' they is important to teach to students and other people interested in usage. To state that singular they is coarse is just a (ridiculous) opinion. The situation is quite the opposite: using it shows some level of sophistication and thoughtfulness –  Araucaria Aug 19 at 12:54
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@Araucaria, There is nothing wrong with the inclusive masculine. Some people live to be offended - let them, they enjoy it and you will be doing them a favour by giving them something to be offended about. –  Ben Aug 19 at 13:33
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@Ben - There is nothing "inclusive" in a lot of minds about the masculine, and there are (and have been for at least six hundred years) rules about the usage of singular they: its use is restricted to situations in which a hypothetical individual is extracted from a plural context (which does not need to be of mixed or unknown sexual composition). –  bye Aug 19 at 14:19
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Can you explain why singular "they" should not be taught to foreigners? It has been used (including by famous authors) for hundreds of years. There was a time during the last century when it was viewed by many people as bad grammar, but this is no longer true, and I would say it is currently an accepted part of the English language. Conversely, using "he" to stand for women is now viewed by many people as bad form. –  Peter Shor Aug 19 at 19:52

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