'Is' and 'their' don't mix well... But I have heard people saying 'Don't bring up the past of a person who is trying to improve their future.' Is it correct? Or should it be 'Who are trying to' instead?

marked as duplicate by ScotM, FumbleFingers, Dan Bron, Chenmunka, Drew Apr 29 '15 at 0:56

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  • 'Don't bring up the past of a person who is trying to improve their future.' This is a grey area; their is quite commonly used where his/her used to be, as a gender-neutral third-person-singular pronoun. But this sounds totally off (unless 'their' refers to others already mentioned). The whiz-deleted form 'Don't bring up the past of a person trying to improve their future' sounds much better. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 25 '15 at 23:16

Interrogative who is always grammatically singular in English this kind of context [see discussion below], even if the expected answer is a plural. Therefore it has to be "Who is trying to improve [...] ?".

If the expected answer is feminine or an entirely feminine group, the sentence ends with "her future". If it is masculine or an entirely masculine group, it ends with "his future". If it is a person of unknown gender, or a group of people whose genders are not known, then according to traditional prescriptive grammar the sentence also ends with "his future". However, this is awkward because we may end up referring to a woman as "he". In such cases there has always been a tendency in English to substitute the plural pronoun for the masculine singular one, especially when this can be defended by the fact that a grammatical singular is logically a plural. (There are examples of this in the King James Bible and in earlier texts.) Even though this practice is under attack from people who think it's a recent abomination caused by political correctness, it is a widespread practice, especially in cases such as this.

In other words, while is and their may not mix well, they have been mixing in literary English for centuries in contexts such as this.

  • But in this case, it wasn't a question. The whole sentence was: 'Don't bring up the past of a person who is trying to improve their future.' So, even in this case, it should be 'who is'? – random Apr 18 '15 at 17:59
  • Who as a relative pronoun can be grammatically plural, but in your case it is singular because it refers to a person. Therefore the same basic principles apply. It is not quite logically plural in this case, though to some extent the aspect does exist even here. The sentence is a general statement about all people trying to improve their respective futures. The alternative explanation that the speaker switched from each person to all persons in the middle of the sentence makes singular they more palatable, and in fact seems to be how it originally arose. – user86291 Apr 18 '15 at 18:13
  • But it is quite awkward.. The speaker started with 'past of a person' then suddenly shifted to 'their' ... but if I use, 'Don't bring up the past of a person who is trying to improve his/her future' would that be wrong? – random Apr 18 '15 at 18:15
  • His/her future is perfectly fine. It is clumsier and less natural than singular they, which is in fact proper English and (I think) does not feel awkward to most native speakers. But it can make sense to avoid singular they due to the significant minority who reject it vehemently. – user86291 Apr 18 '15 at 18:26
  • 1
    Who are these people who claim Interrogative "who" is always grammatically singular in English? – FumbleFingers Apr 18 '15 at 19:32

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