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Why would using the construct "is/their" instead of "is/its" in the following examples likely be frowned upon by some native speakers and marked as incorrect on tests?

The class is working on its assignment. (AmEng)

The class is/are working on its/their assignment. (BrEng)

The class is working on their assignment. (disputed usage)

-and-

The government is always changing its mind. (AmEng)

The government is/are always changing its/their minds. (BrEng)

The government is always changing their mind. (disputed usage)

-and-

The team is putting on its uniforms. (chiefly AmEng)

The team are putting on their uniforms. (chiefly BrEng)

The team is putting on their uniforms. (disputed usage)

-and-

The Smith family is at the beauty parlor getting its hair and nails done for the wedding. (chiefly AmEng)

The Smith family are at the beauty parlor getting their hair and nails done for the wedding. (chiefly BrEng)

The Smith family is at the beauty parlor getting their hair and nails done for the wedding. (disputed usage)

On the other hand, why might other native speakers consider this usage to be acceptable?

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    Although "a person"/"their" is now a standard gender-neutral form in U.S. English, "a thing"/"their" is far less widely accepted—and the reason for that difference in acceptance, I think, is that the older form "a thing"/"its" doesn't raise gender-bias objections. It is certainly not less logical as a matter of number consistency to say "a thing"/"their" than to say "a person"/"their"; but the latter became widespread only because it did sidestep the problem of making "a person," "someone," etc., male. But if you already have a gender-neutral form with "a thing"/"its," why change it? – Sven Yargs Jan 16 '16 at 6:48
  • Maybe it's cultural. Maybe it's because it's America United, America Inc. even. We create imaginary entities, like corporations, that don't really exist and then count them as a singular thing rather than the plurality of individuals who comprise that imaginary thing. We lend more credence and acknowledgment to the intangible whole, to the union, to the incorporated yet incorporate body, than we do to those people who make up that whole, that union, that corporation. Ergo, the government is instead of the government are, and the class's possession is its instead of theirs. – Benjamin Harman Jan 16 '16 at 8:33
  • I'm saying the reason for the disparity is likely sublime, driven by an an entire mindset of unity, of many into one. – Benjamin Harman Jan 16 '16 at 8:38
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    In American English, should it be The team is putting on its uniforms? Or The team is putting on their uniforms? Does anybody think the first one is okay? It sounds insulting to me: you don't call people it. – Peter Shor Jan 16 '16 at 21:15
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    @Mitch: if you can't say The Smith family is at the beauty parlor getting their hair done? then what is the correct usage. The Smith family doesn't get its hair done. (Let me say the first and third examples are perfectly correct with its in AmE.) – Peter Shor Jan 16 '16 at 21:23
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+50

The disputed usage is due to how although team, government, class, etc., are singular nouns, suggesting that they should be conjugated with the singular verb "is", they are made up of many people. And so, to say that the government is always changing their mind makes sense when you think about so many people in the government changing their mind, but not if you adhere to the strict usage of singular verbs with a singular noun.

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Why would such examples be "frowned upon"? Because careful speakers/writers often place a high premium on consistency. The "disputed" usages you cite have an apparently paradoxical problem of grammatical number.

The government is always changing their mind.

If government is singular, which is indicated by a singular verb, then where do the (apparently plural) elements referenced by their come from? It's the same issue that causes some careful speakers/writers to object to "singular they" as a neutral pronoun with singular antecedent, even though it's been around and common for centuries and rarely creates confusion.

In certain contexts, particularly in written prose in a more formal style, this sort of linguistic analysis is easier to do than in fast conversation. In such cases, such inconsistency in number would generally be branded as "awkward" at best (and likely considered "wrong" by many). If I wrote a sentence like one of your examples, I would probably rephrase it to get my point across clearly, rather than simply changing the number of the pronoun (which, as I will argue, alters the meaning in some cases).


Why would the usage be acceptable? Well, mostly because the meaning is very clear in spoken colloquial English. In the above example, the government is not a monolithic entity: it is composed of individual people, who each have to make decisions. Nevertheless, there is some sense of a collective mind that is being changed in the idiom changing [his/her/its] mind. In this case, it may just take a few votes switching sides to move an issue for the entire government. Hence, the government (as a whole) will be changed (as a whole, in its mind) by a few voting members (they) making a shift.

It is perhaps overly concise, packing in a subtle reference to a collective noun's individual components while maintaining a sense of the change of the whole. Again, if I wanted to express that in formal prose, I'd reword it. Simply changing the sentence to

The government is always changing its mind.

does not fix the problem. Rather it alters the meaning to emphasize the monolithic character of the government, as opposed to the individual members.

The various examples given in the question pose similar issues, though I think the justification for the usage is less clear. Take the first example:

The class is working on their assignment.

Unlike the government example, what additional subtlety of meaning is given here by the incongruity of grammatical number? I can't really think of one, and this sentence actually sounds the most awkward to me of the examples given. I would tend to write

The class is working on its assignment.

though I can imagine someone saying:

The class is working on their assignments.

In that case, there is a mid-sentence shift in number from the emphasis on the whole (class is) to individual members and their individual materials (their assignments). A similar thing happens in the last example:

The Smith family is at the beauty parlor getting their hair and nails done for the wedding.

In this case, it is somewhat nonsensical to say that a family has its hair and nails done, since families as entities generally aren't seen as possessing hair and nails. These are, rather, the possessions of individuals. Note also that here, as in my example of their assignments (and the question's example of their uniforms), hair and nails is plural. It's not as obvious, since even an individual has hair and nails, but I think the sentence would sound quite weird if we just pluralized the pronoun but not the noun:

The Smith family is at the plastic surgeon getting their nose done for the wedding.

At a minimum, we'd need to change it to noses, assuming more than one nose was being altered.

And while we're creating absurd sentences, imagine:

The government is at the beauty parlor getting their hair and nails done.

Even if the government were [subjunctive! not plural] composed of a large number of people who all went off to the beauty parlor one day, I would argue that this sentence still wouldn't make sense. Why? Because "getting hair and nails done" is not a common activity of governments, and even if individual members might do so, it is not in any way related to governmental function. On the other hand, class members do do assignments, team members do put on uniforms, and family members often do go en masse to beauty parlors before weddings.

My point is that in all of these cases, a reference both to the collective whole and to individual members acting as individuals could make sense and hence might get thrown into the same sentence together. The less stereotypical the actions (and the shorter the sentence), the more awkward the usage becomes. To me,

The team is eating their lunches.

sounds more strange than

The team is putting on their uniforms.

Basically, I feel like there's a combination of "shorthand" synecdoche (team is just faster to say than team members) and mid-sentence correction going on in many of these examples. Careful speakers might actually interrupt themselves and start the sentence over with consistent grammatical number, but practical English speakers will just plow through and assume the shift in number is clear from context (which it mostly is in these examples). Meanwhile, they don't breach American speech protocols for collective nouns (The family are... sounds odd to Americans in most contexts) while gaining the benefits of concise speech that both references a larger communal entity acting collectively and also recognizes the individuality of its constituents.


But hey, don't just listen to me. Over at Language Log, a post from a decade ago addressed the issue (and specifically the word family). The argument there, as I tried to make here, is to consider the individual logic of the sentence and what multiple meanings it is trying to get across by changing number in midstream:

If someone's logically-concocted "rule" ... tries to stop me from saying what I mean in this case, I perceive it not as a principle to be learned and obeyed, but as a tyranny to be resisted.

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