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If a person of known gender is the first of many of mixed genders to do something, who does the pronoun point to in the following sentence:

Daisy was the first of the students to be handed [pronoun] diploma.

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    Shortening the sentence and getting rid of distracting focus shifts takes care of the problem. Daisy was the first student handed her diploma. But do you really need to personalize this diploma? Why not Daisy was the first student handed a diploma?
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jan 30 at 12:30
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    The example sentence as phrased here, with the plural noun phrase "the students", neatly avoids the problem, because it talks of the students collectively being handed their diplomas: Daisy was the first of the students to be handed their diplomas.
    – Rosie F
    Commented Jan 30 at 12:56
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    If Daisy is one of a group of girls, her works. Otherwise, no pronoun.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jan 30 at 20:04
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    @PhilSweet I don't know that I agree with that, to be honest. We presumably know Daisy and we know whether she's attended a coed school or not, so there's no real ambiguity or confusion if we say that she received her diploma. I can absolutely imagine saying that sentence. Tested the sentence on my daughter, who will be graduating in the spring and is of the generation that is hyperaware of gender in speech, and she had absolutely no idea why anyone would consider it awkward. Commented Jan 30 at 21:45
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    To my ears, it is fortunate that Daisy is the first student to receive her diploma, as it would be a mistake for any other student to have gotten it. :-) Commented Feb 1 at 0:18

5 Answers 5

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As a native English speaker, even if I very strongly suspect the gender of the person I would use the pronoun "their" in this case, it doesn't sound wrong to me in any context.

Daisy was the first of the students to be handed their diploma.

Steve was the first of the students to be handed their diploma.

Steve and Daisy were the first students to be handed their diplomas.

They all sound fine and aren't confusing.

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    OK, but if the pronoun is their, why diploma rather than diplomas (even in the first two cases, not just the third)?
    – jsw29
    Commented Jan 30 at 21:17
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    @jsw29, diploma would probably be fine, it just maybe sounds a little bit like they are getting the same diploma, 'their' can act as either a plural or singular pronoun... Commented Jan 31 at 0:24
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    @jsw29 The subject of the sentence is just Daisy, and she was handed one diploma, so the singular is used, although plural would be acceptable. You would use the plural in something like "The students were all handed their diplomas."
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 31 at 15:45
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    Or "handed a diploma"... Commented Jan 31 at 16:13
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    @jsw29 "Distributives" are weird and inherently ambiguous. Saying "their diplomas" could also mean each student received multiple. Syntactically, "their diploma" could mean there is one (shared) diploma, and it is handed in turn to each student. There is no way to arrange the plurality of these words such that the sentence is unambiguous, so it is almost always resolved by out-of-band information. (Here, we assume that each student gets one diploma, regardless of where the "s"s are, because we know that's how graduation ceremonies work.) Commented Jan 31 at 19:26
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A different twist on pronoun agreement.

By analogy with

  • Daisy was the first girl to pick up her diploma.
  • Daisy was the first girl to be handed her diploma.
  • Daisy was the first to be handed her diploma.

and

  • Daisy was the first of the girls to be handed her diploma.

I'd argue that the pronoun refers back to the first recipient rather than 'the girls', so 'her'.

Examples are not easy to find; this is one, assuming† not all three graduates were female:

It was the same year Una Bick ... enrolled with the first law students in the new TC Beirne School of Law. Two years later, in 1938, she became UQ’s first law graduate.

“Her name commenced with B, and only 3 graduated in that year,” her son, Roger, said.

“So, she was the first of the 3 to receive her degree.”

[University of Queensland: Contact Magazine]

† In 1938, the new Law School at the University of Queensland awarded its first Bachelor of Laws degrees.

There were only three students in the graduating class – Una Bick, Lex Dunn and Lionel Morrison.

[UQLA] confirms this.

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    All but the third bullet point seem to place extra weight on the recipient's gender. That may or may not be desirable. On the other hand, "their", which I might choose, de-emphasises the gender aspect. So just dropping "her" into the original sentence works well
    – Chris H
    Commented Jan 30 at 13:22
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    You could switch to << Of the students who were handed their diplomas. Daisy was the first. >> to avoid the awkward choice. (I'm not keen on the distributive singular 'diploma' here; the ambiguity the distributive plural 'diplomas' introduces is not likely to be important.) Commented Jan 30 at 13:43
  • I'd certainly keep the plural in that case. I find that sort of construction quite helpful when writing genderless examples, for those times when "they" could refer to a (singular) individual or a (plural) group, so it's a good idea here. Of course sometimes the inversion can be helpful in its own right (and sometimes not). It's good to have a range of tools in the box
    – Chris H
    Commented Jan 30 at 16:48
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    The full stop after 'diplomas' in the comment was a typo for a comma. Commented Jan 30 at 22:54
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    Yes, I assumed that once I realised it was a full stop (I use extra small fonts so combined with the capital on "Daisy" it wasn't obvious). It seems like discussing the finer points of language increases the likelihood of typos (Muphry's Law)
    – Chris H
    Commented Jan 31 at 8:09
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Assuming that you wish to use gendered pronouns, the correct choice is "her", since Daisy is (presumably) female.

In particular, the passing mention of the other students doesn't affect the fact that the owner of the diploma, i.e. Daisy, is female, and thus should be referred to with a feminine personal pronoun. In other words, all these sentences are analogous:

"Daisy received her diploma."

"Daisy was handed her diploma."

"Daisy was the first to be handed her diploma."

"Daisy was the first of the students to be handed her diploma."

"Daisy was the first among the more than a hundred students present at the graduation ceremony that took place in the grand hall of the university main building on the fifth of June, ten days after the end of the spring semester, to be handed her diploma."

It doesn't matter how many extra details and digressions are inserted between the beginning and the end of the sentence. The diploma still belongs to Daisy, and thus is her diploma.


That said, it is also possible to choose to use a gender-neutral personal pronoun such as singular "they" instead of a gendered pronoun.

A note of caution should be given, however. While historically such gender-neutral pronouns in English tended to be reserved for persons whose gender was unknown or indeterminate, with the push towards gender-neutral language in recent years it would not be altogether out of the question to use them even when referring to a person whose gender is known.

That said, some readers, especially among the older generations, may find such usage surprising and potentially jarring, and some style guides may advise against it or even declare it incorrect. Also, as the use of gender-neutral pronouns (and gender-neutral language in general) has sometimes been a politically hot topic lately, some people may associate with particular political and cultural views and may, if they happen to be opposed to those views, object to such usage on that basis.

Long story short, while the following sentence would be unlikely to surprise anyone nowadays:

"Each graduating student will be called to the podium, one at a time, where they will be handed their diploma."

some people might be surprised by the use of a gender-neutral pronoun in:

"Daisy was the first of the students to be handed their diploma."

The problem is not that the sentence above would be in any way ambiguous or difficult to understand — it isn't. However, some readers may find the use of "their" instead of "her" unfamiliar and unexpected in this context. Furthermore, some readers may perceive such usage as marked, either to suggest that Daisy identifies as (or is assumed to be) a non-gender-binary person, or possibly as a signal that the writer holds views on gender identity and equality that the reader does not share.

In my personal opinion (as someone whose native language never had such silly gendered pronouns in the first place!) that should not discourage you from using non-gendered pronouns in your writing if you find it more natural and convenient.

But you do (unfortunately) need to be aware of the controversy associated with such usage, and the risk that someone will write you a lengthy public letter accusing you of everything from corrupting the eternal beauty and perfection of the English language to pushing a devilish political conspiracy aimed at sexually perverting the minds of innocent children, all because you used "they" to refer to someone named "Daisy".


Addendum: As noted in some of the comments and other answers, it would also be possible to parse the sentence:

"Daisy was the first of the students to be handed their diploma."

in such a way that "the students to be handed their diploma" is understood as the definition of a group of students, of which Daisy is the first. Under this interpretation, the pronoun "their" refers to "the students", who are plural, and thus is the only possible choice.

However, while this alternative interpretation avoids one problem (specifying who exactly "the students" are), it brings up two more in its place:

  1. If this was the intended interpretation, it would seem more natural for the word "diploma" to be pluralized, since there presumably are as many distinct diplomas involves as there are students.

  2. If the phrase "to be handed their diploma" is interpreted as defining the group of "the students" being referred to, that leaves nothing to define in what respect Daisy is the first among them.

Admittedly, neither of these problems is insurmountable. One could interpret "their diploma" as a distributive singular, and the context in which the sentence is used could supply some implicit definition of what it means for Daisy to be "first" among the group.

In particular, an (IMO) natural context for this sentence would be that of a graduation ceremony, where a group of graduating students are called up, one by one, to receive their diploma from some official. Notably, such a context (if correct) provides an implicit definition of both who "the students" are (namely those participating in the ceremony) and what it means to be "first" among them (as the students are called up to receive their diploma in a specific order).

In that context, the specific sentence:

"Daisy was the first of the students to be handed their diploma."

could be interpreted (more or less) equally well in both ways: either "their" is a gender-neutral singular pronoun referring to Daisy, and "to be handed their diploma" describes the manner in which Daisy is first among the students present, or "their" is plural pronoun referring to "the students", with the entire phrase serving to define the group of students as those "to be handed their [singular!] diploma."

Fortunately, in practice, this grammatical ambiguity is unlikely to create any factual ambiguity in this case. Regardless of how one parses the sentence, there is still a group of students, some or all whom are receiving their diploma(s), and Daisy is the first among them to do so.

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    @Ilmari No they wouldn’t (in which case, I suppose, it wouldn’t). Distributive singulars are perfectly common and fine. Distributives in general are problematic and inherently ambiguous, because there are four possible scenarios to cover (single/multiple referent combined with single/multiple possession), and only two numbers. ‘Their diplomas’ potentially indicates that each student was handed multiple diplomas, while ‘their diploma’ potentially indicates that the students received just one diploma to share; either can be misconstrued, but both are in common use. Commented Jan 31 at 12:28
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: Fair enough. I've amended my answer to cover that possibility. Commented Jan 31 at 13:55
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    "native language never had such silly gendered pronouns in the first place" Yes! This! We should all just learn Hungarian and then all this nonsense would be avoided! (Yeah, yeah, I know, you were probably referring to Finnish.)
    – Marthaª
    Commented Jan 31 at 17:04
  • With the addendum, this answer very exhaustively, and with admirable clarity, covers all the possible ways of interpreting the sentence, and how they affect the choice of the pronoun. Any disagreements that we may have as to which interpretation is more natural is a result of our being in the contrived situation of having to consider the sentence in isolation; in real-life use, the context would probably make it clear which interpretation is intended by the speaker. It is unfortunate that the OP never came back to provide more details of what the question was aiming at.
    – jsw29
    Commented Feb 2 at 17:22
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The pronoun points to Daisy . . .

Daisy was the first of the students [at the ceremony] to be handed her diploma.

Of the students [at the ceremony], Daisy was the first to be handed her diploma.

Put another way . . .

Daisy was the first student [at the ceremony] to be handed her diploma.

Bob was the second to be handed his.

Or . . .

Daisy was handed her [Daisy’s] diploma.

Oops, Daisy was handed his [Bob’s] diploma.

0

The sentence in question states that a certain individual is the first member of a certain group. The individual is, of course, Daisy, and the group is:

the students [queuing] to be handed their diplomas.

The part of the sentence about handing the diplomas is the specification of the group in question. That part of the sentence is not about Daisy in particular; it is about a group of people. It is only because the sentence as a whole tells us that Daisy is a member of that group, that we can conclude that she will be handed her diploma. Because that part of the sentence is about a group of people, it needs their, notwithstanding that the rest of the sentence is about one person.

It is the OP's use of handed (rather than, say, awarded) that leads one to assume that diploma here stands for a paper-embodied document (rather than the academic qualification itself) and that the setting of the utterance is some sort of a ceremony where the students (or, more precisely, the graduands) are, in some order, given these documents. The sentence tells us that, in that order, Daisy was the first.

All this has nothing to do with the controversial issues about singular they/them/their. The their in this sentence is not singular their; it has students as its antecedent, which makes it a perfectly uncontroversial plural their.

The only reason why this answer may not have been immediately obvious is that the sentence, as formulated in the question, confusingly has diploma in the singular. The question does not make it clear why anybody would want to use the singular there.


The above answer has made an assumption about the logical structure of the sentence, which was reasonable given that the sentence was presented in isolation. We can, however imagine a context in which the same sentence would have a different logical structure, and in which her (as well as the singular of diploma) would be appropriate. Consider:

Only 123 students enrolled in 2020. Daisy was the first of the students to be handed her diploma.

(I am assuming that by using a traditionally feminine name in the example, the OP intended us to think of Daisy as female.)

In this case, we would interpret the students to stand for the previously mentioned students, i.e. those who enrolled in 2020. The sentence in this context invites us to consider Daisy as a member of that group, and then tells us something about her, that she is to be handed her diploma. The part of these sentence about handing the diplomas is, in this case, not a specification of the group referred to by the students. Not all of the 123 students in that group are about to receive their diplomas yet: some of them may have dropped out, and some may be taking longer to complete their studies than Daisy, who worked specially hard. To read the sentence this way we, however, need a context that makes the students refer to a group different from the students to be handed their diplomas.

I suspect that the contributors to this page whose answers are based on treating Daisy as the antecedent of the sought pronoun have imagined some such context, despite the OP's not having provided it in in the question.


While (as the other answers and comments on this page make clear), there may be some room for debate as to which of the above two readings of the sentence is more natural, one needs to be aware of both of them for there to even be a question here. If one were to simply assume that Daisy is the antecedent of the sought pronoun, it would be puzzling why the OP asked the question.

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    We don't know what context the OP's sentence appears in, but clearly there is some explicitly or implicitly specified group of "the students". Are they the students in a particular year, or those present at the graduation ceremony, or something else? We don't know, but that group must exist for "the students" to make sense. Assuming, as you seem to, that this group is defined by the following phrase ("to be handed…") makes very little sense to me; not just because "diplomas" would have to be plural, but also because it leaves nothing to define in what respect Daisy is first among them. Commented Jan 30 at 23:12
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    @IlmariKaronen, you say that the first reading 'leaves nothing to define in what respect Daisy is first among them'. The setting presupposed by that reading is one of a graduation ceremony in which the candidates appear one by one in front of some official who hands the diplomas to them. I believe that this is the setting that the OP had in mind, as it is suggested by the word handed; outside the setting of a graduation ceremony one would be more likely to speak of diplomas being awarded rather than handed.
    – jsw29
    Commented Jan 30 at 23:31
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    That is indeed one plausible (and even natural) assumption. But that assumed context also supplies an implicit definition of who "the students" are (namely those participating in the ceremony), so there's no reason to assume that this group needs any further definition. Commented Jan 30 at 23:36
  • I don’t see anything confusing about the singular diploma. Singular distributives are perfectly common. “At the ceremony, graduating students were handed their diploma by the dean in alphabetical order” is perfectly natural to me – about as natural as “… were handed their diplomas …”. Regardless of whether you use the singular or the plural, it’s ambiguous and can be misconstrued. Commented Jan 31 at 12:35
  • The group is not the students to be handed their diplomas; the (passive) infinitive modifies the first. You can see that better here: Daisy was the first of her family to go to college. *Of her family to go to college, Daisy was the first. Or even here: Daisy was the first of the cohort to receive a diploma. *Of the cohort to receive a diploma, Daisy was first. Commented Feb 2 at 16:21

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