Grammar check – he/she? his/her? or they/their?

Image: Pixabay

Have you ever been stuck in an awkward sentence, not knowing which pronoun to use?  Do you feel forced to use the clunky “he/she” or “his/her” option when all you really want to do is replace it with a “they or their” and  move on?

Or have you ever read a sentence with a “they” or “their” that doesn’t match its antecedent? Did you bristle with grammarian know-it-all-ness?

Well guess what? The Associated Press Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style now say it’s okay to use the plural, although they do recommend rewording when possible. Here’s what the Associated Press says in a March 2017 announcement:

During a panel at the American Copy Editors Society national conference in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Friday, it was announced that the 2017 AP Stylebook will include guidance on the limited use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun.

This new recommendation clears up a lot! Here are the details from The Definitive Source, an online AP post:

The addition is immediately available to AP Stylebook Online subscribers and will be included in the new print edition of the Stylebook when it is published on May 31. Key passages from the new entry include:

They, them, their — In most cases, a plural pronoun should agree in number with the antecedent: The children love the books their uncle gave them. They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable. Clarity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers. We do not use other gender-neutral pronouns such as xe or ze…”

Arguments for using they/them as a singular sometimes arise with an indefinite pronoun (anyone, everyone, someone) or unspecified/unknown gender (a person, the victim, the winner)…

In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person…

The change isn’t just about grammar, it recognizes social change and the need to address gender association. AP Stylebook editor Paula Froke explains how this new rule helps:

Not all people fall under one of two categories for sex or gender, according to leading medical organizations, so avoid references to both, either or opposite sexes or genders as a way to encompass all people.


Image: Pixabay

I like to follow the grammar rules and these new ones give me clarity. And while this change was announced nearly a year ago, I only just learned about it. Guess I’d better subscribe to some grammar newsletters!


For everyone who wants to make sure they get it right (can you see I’m trying out the new rule…did I get it right?), here’s more info about the change:

March 24, 2017 announcement from the Associated Press:
“Making a case for a singular ‘they’”

March 27, 2017 post from the Columbia Journalism Review:
“Stylebooks finally embrace the single ‘they’”


Are you a strict grammarian? Is your conversational grammar different from your written word?

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18 thoughts on “Grammar check – he/she? his/her? or they/their?

    1. Same here – we recently rearranged the wording on a marketing piece at work to get around the problem. Now I wouldn’t feel so strange using they or their. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  1. I think I’m going to just go with what I’ve always done and what they seem to recommend — rewording. But honestly, maybe I’m the only one out there, but I’m not bothered by “he” as opposed to the “he or she” variation. Whenever I use “him or her,” I really do it for those it might bother, even though I think sometimes the cumbersomeness of it all bothers me even more.

    1. Hi Karen – I try to reword when I can but it’s good to know we have the option to use they or their. I’ve never been bothered by the use of just “he” – whatever makes things simple is how I see it. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Hi, Barbara. Thanks for sharing this information. I must admit I always struggle with this. As a teacher, I wrote a lot of letters to parents about what to do with their child. Rewording was difficult and I often just had to go with the plural form: they or them. I was uncomfortable doing so, and reworded when possible but felt the general tone of the letter was more important.

  3. I’ve heard this is “allowed” now, but I’d still feel a bit cringe-y using it unless the writing was intended to be casual. In all other cases, I’ll do my best to re-work a sentence to avoid it. Speech is a different animal, though. Can you imagine saying “he/she” in conversation without drawing strange looks?

  4. This is really a tough one! I hate how formal him/her or he/she sounds, but using they/them feels so awkward to me still. It was interesting to read a novella recently that had a gender fluid character referred to as “they” — I often had to stop and reread the sentence to understand whether the author was referring to this particular individual or to the group of people.

  5. This isn’t an interesting question for a couple of reasons. One “they” is commonly used to avoid assigning gender, so I find myself using it more now when before I would have used a singular pronoun. Secondly, my linguistics buff, English major daughter is slowly convincing me that prescriptivist grammar has long been damaging to groups who speak and write differently due to culture. Thanks for a good read!

  6. I like the use of they as singular gender neutral. I’ve used it, perhaps wrongly, before. I thought it was acceptable. Glad to know that now it is. Thanks for sharing. Have a great weekend❤

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