I just now encountered the following sentence in a student paper:

Any new parents that have adopted a child of a different race generally embrace their biological parents[’] race.

Having worked with this student already on this specific point of her argument, I happen to know that the biological parents here in question are the biological parents of the adopted child. Of two possible antecedents for the possessive determiner their, child makes the most sense and is the nearer.

Why, then, if singular they is so fully normal in English as is often claimed, do we at first reading tend to assume that the reference here is to the adoptive parents’ own biological parents, and their culture? That some slight double-take is almost always required of a native speaker in interpreting they/them/their as singular has been demonstrated by Anthony J. Sanford and Ruth Filik (“‘They’ as a Gender-Unspecified Singular Pronoun: Eye Tracking Reveals a Processing Cost.” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 60.2 [2007]: 171–78); but this case, where a genuinely plural antecedent is available, I think goes way beyond the usual mental/ocular hiccup.

If you are an advocate of the singular they, how do you justify this usage? Do advocates of singular they justify it?

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    That sentence is inherently ambiguous. Pluralize a child and see. Generally the subject is the first-appearing choice for a referent, and if the subject is eligible, it's the first choice to try. Then you try the other choices, if that doesn't work. Feb 28, 2015 at 18:35
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    As for what that might teach us about singular they, I'd say it teaches us that it's on the list of options, but not as high as a genuine plural. Not surprising, really. Feb 28, 2015 at 18:38
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    As @John says, the subject is always the first choice as antecedent, and in this sentence, the subject works very well as the antecedent—everything fits, right up until you realise that the subjects’ parents’ race is irrelevant to the sentence and doesn’t make any sense. When everything fits grammatically and you have to resort to semantic analysis to realise you’re reading the sentence wrong, a double-take and longer parsing time are both quite natural reactions. Feb 28, 2015 at 18:55
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    This “question” seems like a veiled peeve disguised as a strawman argument people are expected to tilt at, not a legitimate point of inquiry.
    – tchrist
    Feb 28, 2015 at 20:28
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    The problem isn't the use of the singular they. The problem is the sentence is poorly written. Forget about who is embracing, what does it mean to embrace a race and how does this differ from embracing a racial identity [if it does indeed differ]? Feb 28, 2015 at 21:11

3 Answers 3


We can learn nothing. The only reasonable interpretation is that "they" refers to the parents. And that leads us to the fact that the sentence is inherently flawed (if you meant to say anything about the race of the child's parents, rather than the parents' parents.)

Who says one should attribute a pronoun to the "nearest" noun? Why should we ignore syntax?

  • So, he adopted a boy and his sister can not, according to you, mean anything else than that the subject adopted the subject's sister?
    – oerkelens
    Mar 3, 2015 at 11:48
  • Do you, or don't you, attribute the pronoun to the nearest noun in that sentence? To answer your question, I gave an example where most speakers will say that you should do that. Your implied claim that the pronoun should be attributed to the subject lacks any substantiation.
    – oerkelens
    Mar 4, 2015 at 8:47
  • Maybe you should explain in your answer then why his in his sister can not, in your opinion refer to the subject of the sentence. I assume that you agree that in He gave money to his brother and his sister, his both times can refer to the subject, even though the structure is the same as my first example?
    – oerkelens
    Mar 4, 2015 at 12:09
  • Why are you throwing in semantics in my example, when you claim it's irrelevant in the OP's example? Make it his father and his sister, and we don't know anymore if the second one is the sister or the aunt. Now interpretation does matter. The construction is subject-object-pronoun, and the question is whether we can determine whether the pronound refers to the subject or the object. I can give you examples where it can refer to either of the two, independent of pure syntax, where semantics define the interpretation (or where the sentence is simply ambiguous).
    – oerkelens
    Mar 5, 2015 at 7:45
  • Semantically, the OP's sentence is very easy to correctly interpret. Your statement that only one interpretation i spossible (which is the semantic nonsense-version) means that you believe semantics plays no role. You have given no reason why their can not refer to the children's parents other than "it is so". I gave you examples of sentences where the pronoun obviously does not refer to the subject. I would love to see some actual explanation why a pronoun sometimes has to refer to the subject and sometimes not, as you effectively claim.
    – oerkelens
    Mar 5, 2015 at 8:38

As commented by others, the example sentence is poorly written, and that is the main reason why it is confusing.

A better written sentence would be:

"The adoptive parents of a child of a different race will generally embrace the culture of their biological parents."

  • I think the proper correction might be more like "Parents who adopt a child of a different race will generally embrace the culture of that child's biological parents." Here the problem if the anaphoric possessive is solved by simply substituting the possessive form of the actual noun. The absurdity or oddity of the notion of embracing a race is also here corrected: the student had responded too simplistically to my criticism of her conflating race and culture in an earlier draft. But in any case it was always the parents, not the child, who were said to do the embracing. Mar 2, 2015 at 19:56

I dunno. On first reading, I read their as referring to 'child', since I naturally went back to the closest noun. In general this seems like a forum question (hey, let's discuss this topic) rather than a question that has an actual answer that is not largely opinion based. If it is a question about word choice, then I say it's fine. But again this is just my opinion. And I give it as an ESL/EFL teacher.

Edited to add: One might tell the student that the answer is fine because pronouns very often refer back to the closest noun. And one might think to themselves that the more singular They is used and processed, the more natural it will become for readers to "look for" singular as well as plural antecedents.

  • 1
    @Mari-LouA They would advise that the sentence be rewritten, as with any other garden-path sentence leading to head-scratching.
    – tchrist
    Feb 28, 2015 at 19:45
  • @tchrist I had suggested in a comment (now deleted) substituting their with the traditional his/her but then I realized that the ambiguity wasn't completely eliminated.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 28, 2015 at 19:50
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    A question that starts how might is an open ended question. It is inherently discussion oriented. There is no one answer that can be given. There are many possible answers that can be given, all of which would be opinion based. @Mari-Lou
    – pazzo
    Feb 28, 2015 at 20:01
  • I think you're absolutely right! And you expressed your opinion. You didn't backtrack at all?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 28, 2015 at 20:03
  • @tchrist Your statement is not what I would do. Which proves my point -- as does the ongoing discussion in the comments to the question post.
    – pazzo
    Feb 28, 2015 at 20:06

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