I need to refer to a user of a certain service and would like to avoid a perticular gender such as his/her and not use one either. Could I say "The user attempts to maximize own capacity.", instead of "The user attempts to maximize his own capacity"?

Thanks a lot.

  • I was in the middle of writing what I thought was a good answer to this, when it got pulled out from under me by the duplicate markup. Darn. Dec 5, 2013 at 19:43
  • I would still very much appreciate if you can state your answer. Thanks.
    – MLT
    Dec 5, 2013 at 19:45
  • OK, but with the question marked as a duplicate, no answers can be added to it. So I added it as an answer to the question linked to above, although it is a little tongue-in-cheek, I warn you. english.stackexchange.com/questions/192/… Dec 5, 2013 at 20:07

2 Answers 2


In these cases you can always refer to them as "them". e.g.

"The user attempts to maximize their own capacity."

This avoids any assumption of gender

  • 1
    Thanks. So it is alright that user is singular and their seems to be plural?
    – MLT
    Dec 5, 2013 at 19:25
  • 1
    Yes, very much alright. "own" is superfluous, though. Dec 5, 2013 at 21:01

No, you can't use "own" that way. Also, the use of the plural "them" or "their" in reference to a singular noun, as Slipstream is recommending, is considered informal usage (it's perfectly valid in everyday speech), but it's not recommended for formal (i.e., published non-dialogue) writing.

What I usually do is change gender for each example - when I am talking about my first user, I might use "her" to suggest that the user is a woman, then when talking about a second user, use "him" to suggest that the user is a man.

EDIT: Since there is some controversy on the subject of "Singular they" here, let me cite the wikipedia article on the subject, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they, and include a passage which that article quotes from the Chicago Manual of Style:

A singular antecedent requires a singular referent pronoun. Because "he" is no 
longer accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of either sex, it 
has become common in speech and in informal writing to substitute the third-person 
plural pronouns "they," "them," "their," and "themselves," and the nonstandard 
singular "themself." While this usage is accepted in casual contexts, it is still 
considered ungrammatical in formal writing. . . . Employing an artificial form 
such as "s/he" is distracting at best, and most readers find it ridiculous. There 
are several better ways to avoid the problem. For example, use the traditional, 
formal "he" or "she," "him" or "her," "his" or "her," "himself" or "herself."

[Added quotation marks around the example words to make it easier to read.]

The Wikipedia article also notes this apology on the Chicago Manual website: http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/qanda/data/faq/topics/Pronouns/faq0018.html .

Another way to approach this would be to use plural "they": to write "The users attempt to maximize their own capacity."

  • 4
    Now that is something I would never recommend for formal writing. Singular they is attested in formal, published, non-dialogue writing going back centuries upon centuries. Changing gender for each example, on the other hand, is an idiosyncrasy of yours.
    – RegDwigнt
    Dec 5, 2013 at 18:57
  • Surely not his/her idiosyncrasy, @RegDwigнt! I've seen other writers use that (rather odd) practice. Dec 5, 2013 at 19:42
  • I don't know what "formal writing" means to you. In my technical world, they/their is a firmly established genderless alternative, and is strongly preferred to his/her. One reason for that preference is to avoid crazy-making hacks like flip-flopping his/her. Dec 5, 2013 at 20:57
  • "Formal writing" means "for publication as a book or in a serial," and implies "as advised in style manuals." Are you actually using a style manual that tells you that they/their is ok as a "common" gender possessive in formal discourse? I'd love to see the citation. It's fine in SPOKEN discourse, and yes, it goes back centuries; but once formal written English solidified in the 19th century, the usage was deprecated in that kind of discourse. Dec 6, 2013 at 19:33

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