Why is their in the following sentence wrong?

The modern American family differs in many significant ways from their nineteenth-century counterpart.

  • 13
    Who said it's wrong? Sep 11, 2012 at 16:06
  • 10
    Change it to it either "family differs ... from ... its" or "families differ ... from ... their"
    – prash
    Sep 11, 2012 at 16:14
  • 1
    I was going to add an answer, but @prash has already answered it above (+1). As an answer below has said, "family" can be either singular or plural, depending on usage and intended meaning. However, in the example sentence above, the word is being used in both senses (family differs... from their....). Fix the sentence to use one or the other, and you're good to go.
    – narx
    Sep 11, 2012 at 16:31
  • Well there you go. Two diametrically opposed answers and they're both right.
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 11, 2012 at 16:49
  • 2
    In Diana Hacker's 7th edition of Writer Reference there is a pre-grammar test to give students, and every single one of my students got it wrong. I thought it had something to do with family being singular or plural - but was not sure and did not want to give them the wrong direction. Thank you all for your help!
    – Dawn
    Sep 11, 2012 at 18:58

6 Answers 6


It's wrong because family is singular and their should be used for plurals (apart from singular their, which can't be the case here).

For singular you use its, therefore:

The modern American family differs in many significant ways from its nineteenth-century counterpart.

Or you make the subject plural, thus having:

Modern American families differ in many significant ways from their nineteenth-century counterparts.

  • 4
    @tenfour It depends on how rigid about prescriptivist grammar the person judging the sentence is. And, which prescriptivist grammar they adhere to. Sep 11, 2012 at 16:22
  • 4
    Personally, I would drop the definite article in the plural sentence and pluralize counterparts: "Modern American families differ in many significant ways from their nineteenth-century counterparts." Otherwise, I agree.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Sep 11, 2012 at 16:35
  • 10
    Total nonsense. Singular and Plural are not strictly lexical categories. Plus singular they as an indefinite pronoun has been in use for centuries in English. Sep 11, 2012 at 20:46
  • 4
    @tenfour Yes, people sometimes sometimes use a plural with a collective noun when referring to the individual members, more in Britain than the US, but that's not applicable here. This sentence is almost surely not saying that the individual members of a family are different from members of 19th century families, but that families as a collective whole are different from 19th century families. We're talking about a family as a unit.
    – Jay
    Sep 11, 2012 at 21:16
  • 5
    Even if "family" can be treated as either singular or plural, that does not mean that it can be treated as both at the same time.
    – sawa
    Sep 12, 2012 at 2:08

OP's sentence is wrong for most Americans because they normally, esp. in recent decades, treat "the family" as singular, so they would expect "its counterpart", not "their counterpart".

It's wrong for Brits because although it's true we often treat "the family" as plural, if we did that in this particular case we'd obviously expect "The ... family differ", not "differs".

But it's worth pointing out that Brits don't always treat these "group nouns" (family, Parliament, the government, company names, etc.) as plural. In this specific case I think most of us would use the singular anyway, because the family is referenced as a single entity being compared to another single entity (its "collective" counterpart).

It's also worth pointing out that I doubt many native speakers would be happy with...

?*The family took its places at the table.

...which just goes to show that there's no single "logical" approach anyway. I put that example up because you can fix it using singular "they", or simply by saying "the family" is plural anyway (in which case you can legitimately use "plural 'they'"). But if you insist "the family" is singular, and you don't endorse "singular 'they'", you're stuck with the very ungainly form above!

  • 2
    Interesting. Plural use of group nouns is hardly restricted to British English. That last example ("The family took their places") is a case where it's quite natural in AmE. Sep 12, 2012 at 2:27
  • @Mechanical snail: Yeah, but I suspect these (admittedly few) instances of "the family took its place" are more US than UK. Sep 12, 2012 at 2:47

It's not wrong, but I would have worded it like so:

The modern American family differs ... from its nineteenth-century counterpart.

Here everything is singular: family / differs / its / counterpart.

If you substitute the singular they in that sentence, it's equally valid and becomes what you had originally written:

The modern American family differs ... from their nineteenth-century counterpart.

Another way to word it is to make everything plural:

Modern American families differ ... from their nineteenth-century counterparts.

  • Singular they is not valid here because "family" is an abstract entity, not a person. Sep 12, 2012 at 5:04
  • @Mechanicalsnail - I don't believe that's correct. Singular they can be used for words of indeterminate number or gender, and abstract entities like "family" and "staff" fall into that category. For a reference, see here (scroll down to the part about "My family stops by")
    – Lynn
    Sep 12, 2012 at 20:26
  • I disagree, and would take that example as related to the usual "implicit unpacking" of collective entities. If it were truly a singular they, “My family stops by regularly and it always brings pizzas” would be equally valid (modulo whether it can be used for animates). The source continues, "The key point here is that it’s not the syntactic number, but rather the semantic number that matters.", which supports my interpretation. Sep 12, 2012 at 23:19
  • Also, that's really a different usage. In the "brings pizza" example, unpacking makes sense, because it's the members of the family that are physically bringing the pizzas. In the poster's example, it's the family itself, as a concept, that differs from its 19th-century counterpart. Sep 12, 2012 at 23:21
  • @Mechanicalsnail: "My family stops by and it always brings pizzas" does sound equally valid to my ear, because you could be talking about "family" as the abstract entity. It sounds like we'll just have to agree to disagree.
    – Lynn
    Sep 13, 2012 at 11:23

From what I understand, 'their' is also a sign of ownership. From what I further understand, it is part of what you're implying when you say it is THEIR counterpart.

The modern American family differs in many significant ways from their nineteenth-century counterpart.

If we were to completely take away the middle part, we'd get this...

The modern American family differs from their nineteenth-century counterpart.

Now, you can use 'its', but while it is still an unresolved issue with ALL of the English language, it is one of those accepted things. Singular 'they' does exist and it CAN BE used here. (My earlier argument, for this case just is another piece of evidence for the pro-singular 'they'.)

I'd further like to say that you have listed the noun, it is not nondescript. You refer to a family as a person or as (a) people. That is another reason why 'their' is correct. 'Family', in this case, is being viewed as people, as in plural. (And this last bit was for everyone who thought the sentence was wrong.)

Case closed.

  • I've only ever heard singular they used for animate referents. It cannot be used here because the original sentence is clearly referring to 'family' as a concept, not to any particular person, nor to the various members of the family. Sep 12, 2012 at 2:29
  • @Mechanicalsnail As I had clearly said in my answer, you don't define family as something inanimate. One would think that if something were NOT inanimate, that it would then be animate. Thus, what you should have said was 'Concepts can't be animate', and you'd be wrong there too. Family, if used as a concept, is a moving one. Therefore, animate. I'd hate to think of 'family' as "stagnant".
    – Souta
    Sep 12, 2012 at 9:10
  • I don't know why you guys think singular "they" is only valid with "inanimate" objects. If "someone gave their" (life, attention, whatever) to something, would you say that must be incorrect, and that the only valid form is "someone gave his..."? Everyone has their own opinion about singular "they", but I never heard of this "inanimate" constraint before. Sep 12, 2012 at 15:36
  • @FumbleFingers Where did I say that singular 'they' is only valid with inanimate objects? I didn't. Instead, I had said that 'family' is NOT an inanimate object. If anything, you were mistaken.
    – Souta
    Sep 12, 2012 at 15:52
  • 1
    Per @sawa's comment on tchrist's answer, whilst you can make an argument for "family" being people, plural, it's irrelevant to OP's example. People my have different opinions about the "plurality" of "family" - but everyone knows the verb form differs must indicate a singular subject, so it can't be a plural "they" in this case. Sep 12, 2012 at 16:49

Using their in that sentence is not wrong. It is right for either of two different paths:

  1. It is right if you construe family to be a plural, as such things frequently are, especially in British English.

    • Have the family from Iowa checked out of their room yet? They seem to have left their dog behind!
  2. It is right if you construct their as here referring to a non-specific or non-sexed singular antecedent.

    • Any member of the family is fully covered as soon as their individual deductible has been met.

Either way, the usage is correct.

Of course, correctness has never stopped people from complaining about things; people will always complain.

  • 3
    But if family is construed as plural, the verb should likewise be cast in the plural. Sep 11, 2012 at 16:36
  • 2
    @tchrist - Your suggestion (1) is informal, and could be taken to refer to individual members of a specific family, and your (2) is referring to a person, and should be his/hers (pending some new non-sexed pronoun). The family in the original post refers to the structure, not to individual members.
    – DavidR
    Sep 11, 2012 at 16:41
  • 2
    I'm not arguing with your #2, but with your #1: if your justification for using their is that you construe family as a plural, you must say The family differ, just as Brits say "Parliament are in recess". If you say here The family differs, then it is the use of they/their for a "non-specific ... antecedent" which is in play here ("non-sexed" being in that case hors de concours). Sep 11, 2012 at 18:37
  • 1
    @StoneyB: You're misrepresenting British usage there. We never say Parliament are in recess. 10 of the 11 results in that link are bog-standard things like "law courts and Parliament are in recess". The other one is some misinformed person using that (fictitious) example to make the same claim as you. And here are 3200 examples of "Parliament is in recess", which is what we say. Sep 11, 2012 at 21:01
  • 3
    Explanation for #2 does not work. You're talking about Any member, which is singular. OP's statement was quite different.
    – prash
    Sep 11, 2012 at 21:13

It's wrong because their is plural and counterpart, to which their belongs, is singular. That simple. Whether family is singular, plural or both, and whether they can be singular if paired with a non-specific referent (both fruitful sources of disagreement, obviously) have no bearing on the case.

  • 1
    Next you'll be telling us that there's something wrong with "Everybody raise their hand!"
    – Colin Fine
    Sep 11, 2012 at 23:24
  • Wait. 'Their' should agree with its referent, not with the NP it heads. Sep 12, 2012 at 4:59
  • @Mechanicalsnail; true, but here there would only be a distinction if every modern family had the same counterpart. Sep 12, 2012 at 13:18

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