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I'm helping a nephew edit a paper and while he says it isn't essential that it be grammatically perfect...😲 well. I don't know have to explain. You are my people. So without further ado, which option is correct:

A. This means that those who were indoctrinated at a young age may be hesitant to discuss their background.

B. This means that those who were indoctrinated at a young age may be hesitant to discuss their backgrounds.

I know the entire structure is awkward, and has to GO. But I became fixated on this issue, and would love the answer--more for me than for him at this point. Ha! Thank you in advance.

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2 Answers 2

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I would suggest B. The singular they is still not accepted by all purists, and for A to be grammatical, you need to accept the singular they.

A. This means that those who were indoctrinated at a young age may be hesitant to discuss their background.

For this to be grammatical, you need to accept the singular "they". If you say "their background", you assume that there is only one background, which means that "their" can only reference one person. Consider the phrase "Everybody has their ..." The word "everybody" is singular, so using the traditionally accepted grammar, you could say "everybody has his" or "everybody has his or her", but not "everybody has their". Ngrams shows that people generally did not use their in this phrase before around 1960.

B. This means that those who were indoctrinated at a young age may be hesitant to discuss their backgrounds.

This is grammatically sound whether or not you accept the singular they, so if you are writing an assignment for a teacher whose views on singular they you don't know, it's the better choice.

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  • I agree with this answer in general, and I upvoted it, but I'd consider option A correct if it's clear from the context that the (many) hesitant people all have one and the same background. Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 2:34
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First I'd be concerned about whatever school or employer or student or employee doesn't think it essential that it be grammatically perfect.. Logically speaking the singular works because one background contains many details, is a collective term and should apply to the background(s) of scores of people. Uh-oh, I've just realised that this answer might fail logically ... My ear tells me that both should be acceptable but leans toward the singular.

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  • Thanks, Guy! By the way, I'm sure the school wants grammatical perfection. He's a teenager. HE doesn't think it's necessary. If he spent as much time on his grammar as he did perfecting his sulk, he'd be golden. LOL! Thank you. Oddly enough, I lean toward the plural, just by my ear. Darn it. I'm no closer!
    – ISBN
    Commented Nov 11, 2020 at 19:35

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