Noun-Pronoun Agreement: S/he or They?

“A toddler might foot-stomp to get out some pent-up frustration, but their parent should realize tantrums are entirely normal at that age.” 

Hmmmm…something just isn’t right in that sentence….
You guessed it: it is suffering from nounpronoun agreement issues.

Here is a description and an example of what pronouns do from a handout on noun-pronoun agreement:

“A pronoun is a word that refers to a noun and can stand in its place. By using a pronoun, you can refer to the same person, place, thing, or idea repeatedly without using the same noun every time. For example, the following sentence becomes far less awkward when pronouns are used:

WITHOUT PRONOUNS: Molly thinks that Molly should sell Molly’s car to Molly’s brother.
WITH PRONOUNS: Molly thinks that she should sell her car to her brother.”

As the handout indicates, pronouns help writers reduce wordiness.  Nouns and pronouns need to agree in both number and gender:

NUMBER EXAMPLE:
Jenny sings her favorite songs every day in the shower. (The word Jenny is singular, so the pronoun that refers to it is singular.)
Jenny’s aunts think their niece is very talented. (The word aunts is plural, so the pronoun referring to it is plural.)

GENDER EXAMPLE:
Jenny’s father is proud of his daughter.
Jenny’s mom thinks her daughter could be a star.
Jenny’s uncles think their niece is spoiled.

Sometimes, however, writers struggle to make the noun and pronoun agree, particularly when a writer is trying to keep a sentence gender-neutral. For instance: “A graduate student has to complete five steps before __________ can finish the application process.”  Because the writer chose a gender-neutral noun – “a graduate student”  – the pronoun should be gender neutral also. But, the English language doesn’t provide a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. There is a plural one: “they/their.”  But, not singular. Instead, the writer’s options are to use either “he or she” or “s/he” to complete the sentence in the example above.  The problem is, too often, writers default to using ‘they’ or ‘their’ to make the pronoun gender-neutral, even if the number doesn’t match.  That is how we ended up with our first sentence on this post: A toddler might foot-stomp to get out some pent-up frustration, but their parent should realize tantrums are entirely normal at that age.” 

Historically, writers were expected to use “he” as the primary pronoun in a sentence with a gender-neutral noun.  Over time, that practice became unacceptable because of its overt favoring of one gender.  To respond to a new need, writers sometimes alternated  – using “he” as the pronoun in one chapter, then “she” as the pronoun in the next.  For the most part, contemporary writers have settled on “he or she” or “s/he“as the favored solution, even though there are whole movements in language studies dedicated to creating a gender-neutral, singular pronoun.

While I am not necessarily advocating (or not) any movement to change the language, I am reminding even very experienced writers: when you revise, keep your eye on this very common writing challenge.  It slips by some of the most detail-oriented editors.

If you would like an extra review of your work before publication, sign up for a session with Tutoring the Whole Writer for assistance.  In the meantime, test your skills, just for ‘fun!’

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