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Is this sentence grammatically correct?

Anyone who loves the English language should have a copy of this book in their bookcase.

or should it be:

Anyone who loves the English language should have a copy of this book in his or her bookcase.

66

Certainly many usage guides have advised against use of this "singular they" on various "logical" grounds. Nevertheless, singular they has long been part of the English language, and there are various posts on Language Log giving examples of it being used in the Bible, by Shakespeare, by the president, by the Canadian Department of Justice, etc.. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language's coauthor Geoff Pullum (a frequent Language Log contributor) calls the idea that they must never occur with a singular antecedent a myth.

There is no shortage of usage "experts" who advise against it, as the other answers in the question should make clear (though these days their reasoning tends away from a simple "it's wrong" towards something more defensive–"some people will think it's wrong, so avoid it"). But despite them, use of singular they occurs at all levels of the language, both spoken and written, informal and formal.

It's not ungrammatical per se on the basis of analysis of actual usage using reasonable linguistic methods. But use it at your own risk of being criticized by the self-righteous but misinformed.

  • 3
    I've always wanted to ask: What makes you (or the Language Log) assert that something used by the Bible, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, etc., etc., is "correct"? "Correct" is what sounds fine to the readers/listeners, and if a significant number of them feel it's wrong — this depends on the audience and changes with time — then you may as well avoid it. – ShreevatsaR Aug 6 '10 at 15:50
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    If a particular usage is used by those regarded as the greatest writers in the English language, then who is some piddly usage writer to say anything they write is wrong? But like I said, "use it at your own risk of being criticized by the self-righteous but misinformed" – nohat Aug 6 '10 at 16:39
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    Mavens frequently appeal to older meanings and usages to justify their arbitrary pronouncements. (Other common gambits are "logic" and "clarity".) So the LL people are demonstrating that even on their own typical assumptions these people are not only wrong, but cannot be bothered to actually check to see whether their assertions are accurate at all. I don't think any of the linguists who post there would suggest that people should talk the way Shakespeare wrote, and I would wager a substantial sum that they never have. – Alan Hogue Aug 13 '10 at 18:30
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    @ShreevatsaR to come back to this old discussion, I think the point is that the usage writer doesn’t merely say “let’s not use singular they ”; they say “let’s not use singular they because it’s wrong for these reasons”. In that case, a rebuttal of “no, your reasons are specious, false, or based on incorrect data” seems perfectly apt. – nohat Sep 18 '10 at 1:09
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    @The Raven most people who use singular "they" have no idea that anyone would think anything is wrong with it and are not nagged by a sense of trying to get away with something. In fact, they don't even think about it all—they just use it as part of their language. My analysis is not without its caveat though; as I said above, “use it at your own risk of being criticized by the self-righteous but misinformed” – nohat Feb 27 '11 at 18:35
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Up until very recent times the natural answer would have been "Anyone who loves the English language should have a copy of this book in his bookcase", because "his" was also a gender-neutral pronoun. It turned out, however, that "his" could only function as a gender-neutral pronoun if it were a plot by the patriarchy or something, so we're in the process of trying out alternatives.

I've heard serious proposals to substitute "their", "his or her", "her", "its", and even "hisorher". Of those alternatives, I use "their" because it sounds the most natural to me, but usually I avoid pronouns altogether, as in, "This book should be book in the bookcase of anyone who loves the English language." That style has the additional advantage of making you sound formal and pedantic.

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    "Singular They" as a substitute for "his or her" is much older than recent gender-neutrality changes. That's probably why it sounds natural to you. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 13 '10 at 18:38
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    Nice! I had never previously considered sounding pedantic as an advantage. I consider myself newly enlightened! :-) – Cyberherbalist Dec 5 '13 at 19:49
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Second one (for writing purpose), if I believe the "THEY/THEIR (SINGULAR)" article.

A good general rule is that only when the singular noun does not specify an individual can it be replaced plausibly with a plural pronoun:

“Everybody” is a good example.
We know that “everybody” is singular because we say “everybody is here,“ not “everybody are here” yet we tend to think of “everybody” as a group of individuals, so we usually say “everybody brought their own grievances to the bargaining table.”
“Anybody” is treated similarly.

However, in many written sentences the use of singular “their” and “they” creates an irritating clash even when it passes unnoticed in speech.
It is wise to shun this popular pattern in formal writing.

  • 1
    +1, but note that the piece begins with "Using the plural pronoun to refer to a single person of unspecified gender is an old and honorable pattern in English…", and specifically points out that singular they is especially common with "everybody", "anybody", etc. (The question has "anyone".) – ShreevatsaR Aug 6 '10 at 15:50
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I have gone to using their instead of the increasingly awkward him/her in all but the most formal of my writings. His or her is sounding very contrived, and it is no better to substitute her for him than to have him as the gender neutral pronoun. The use of their is increasingly common and should simply be accepted by grammarians, though it will probably take a century or so before the high and mighty accept this increasingly common usage.

  • +1 I had heard of their already in my second year of high school in the early eighties and have used it ever since – javadba Jan 13 '18 at 20:48
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See here or here or here.

Executive summary: His/her is to be avoided.

3

In a business English course at WVU in 1987, I was taught to avoid the sexist language/agreement problem by making the subject plural:

AnyoneAll the people who love the English language should have copies of this book in their bookcases.

  • This doesn't work for "Write your Representative in Congress and tell them ..." – Peter Shor Jul 21 '12 at 16:51
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    @PeterShor For a member of Congress, "it" could be appropriate ;-) – Fuhrmanator Dec 8 '13 at 20:23
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In these days of exaggerated care for egalitarianism it is always a conundrum whether to use "his", "her" or "their". And perhaps we should be concerned about egalitarianism.

On the other hand, the traditional use of the masculine gender to stand in for both sexes still doesn't seem too outré to me. As a guy, perhaps I am missing something.

What I would do, if I were writing technical works, would be to write one with a masculine user, and the next time do it for a feminine user. Leave each work (whether an essay or a book) consistent as to gender of the subject user.

Alternatively, if you are a female writer, your user should always be female; and if a male writer, then male user.

Lot's of choices out there! Try to offend as many people as possible.

  • Lingual anarchy - yay! – Ste Dec 5 '13 at 20:53

protected by user2683 Jul 21 '12 at 13:52

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