Advanced Business Writing
Punctuation and Grammar

They Singular

Here's the problem:

English had no pronoun that could refer to one person and that could be independent of that person's gender (socially labeled or personally identified).

This problem is not new. In 1878, a writer for The Atlantic magazine argued, "We need a new pronoun. The need of a personal pronoun of the singular number and common gender is so desperate, urgent, imperative, that according to the established theories it should long have grown in our speech, as the tails grew off monkeys."

This problem is now solved. In 2016, the American Dialect Society voted for they, when used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, as the Word of the Year. They didn't make up a new pronoun; they expanded the acceptable use of an existing pronoun. And that settled it. Sort of.

Unfortunately, here's the new problem:

English now has a pronoun, they, that can refer to one person and that can be independent of that person's gender (socially labeled or personally identified), but during this time of change you should write in a way that does not annoy your reader.

So—what do you do? You have three choices:

(1) Play it safe: rewrite the sentence without that pronoun.

(2) Make it work: edit the sentence so it doesn't sound awkward.

(3) Own it: leave the sentence alone, proudly.

You are on your own for the first and third options. In this lesson we will concentrate on edits that most readers can tolerate.

Let's begin with a sentence that many people might consider sexist:

If the mayor wins the lottery, he should treat everyone to a round of golf.

Assume readers are aware that the writer is speaking generically because he does not know the gender of the mayor.

Here is a version that many people consider non-sexist:

If the mayor wins the lottery, they should treat everyone to a round of golf.

It sounds a bit awkward, but it's our necessary starting point. Edits to make it less awkward are mostly done by changing the style of the noun.

Change the noun from definite to indefinite:

If a mayor wins the lottery, they should treat everyone to a round of golf.

Change the noun from indefinite to non-specific:

If any mayor wins the lottery, they should treat everyone to a round of golf.

Change the noun from singular to plural:

If mayors win the lottery, they should treat everyone to a round of golf.

Beyond this, we typically rewrite the sentence:

Mayors who win the lottery should treat everyone to a round of golf.

Similar editing techniques apply to related pronouns including their, theirs, them, and themselves. For example:

If the mayor wins the lottery, their handicap is likely to improve.

If a mayor wins the lottery, their handicap is likely to improve.

If any mayor wins the lottery, their handicap is likely to improve.

If mayors win the lottery, their handicaps are likely to improve.

Mayors who win the lottery are likely to improve their handicaps.

Every change made to reduce awkwardness also changes the meaning of the sentence, at least a little. You have a continuum to choose from. It's easy to do, but it's difficult to do it just right for your reader. Good luck!

Lesson: They Singular
Module: Punctuation and Grammar
Course: Advanced Business Writing