Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Why is there a "their" there?

In the CHE today "Female Science Professor" writes, "If you don't like another professor, don't take your dislike out on their students and postdocs." I am always irritated by that use of "their"--the plural pronoun with a singular antecedent, utterly illogical, calling attention to its lack of gender bias.

Mine doesn't seem to be the majority view. Those whose opinions I respect remind me that the usage goes back at least to Shakespeare,"God send every one their heart's desire!" Thackery writes, "A person can't help their birth." And "in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves," says the King James Committee.

I don't care. I find the construction, as currently used, smugly self satisfied in its correctness (and, yes, I'm probably projecting here), but each person must please themselves.


Nev said...

I find it irritating because usually, it's so easy to just pluralize the antecedent. You could easily say, "If you don't like certain professors, don't take your dislike out on their students", etc. "Love your baby: keep them warm and dry" (Pampers), could just as easily be, "Love your babies: keep them warm and dry."

There are bigger things to fret over, but I'm not sure what they are.

RHE said...

Fairness requires me to include this note from an article on the feminist philosophy of language (

One especially successful reform effort has been the increasingly accepted singular use of the third-person gender-neutral pronoun ‘they’, (in place of ‘he’) as in the sentence below:

Somebody left their sweater behind.

A key reason for the success of this reform is perhaps the history of the singular ‘they’. As Ann Bodine has noted (1998), the singular use of ‘they’ has a long history. It did not begin to be criticized until the 19th century, and despite all the efforts of prescriptive grammarians it has remained very popular in speech. Due to feminist work on the effects of ‘gender-neutral’ use of ‘he’, even prescriptive grammarians are now becoming more accepting of ‘they’.

So it appears that I am even more of a troglodyte than "prescriptive grammarians." Ah, well. Each and every dog must have their day.