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issue 54

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Training Bulletin Issue 54

If anyone's confused about he or she, they should think again

  1. Each member of staff should fill in their time sheet daily.
  2. The client needs to notify us of their requirements.
  3. A customer can apply for their discount by email or phone.
  4. Anyone thinking of buying a car should consider their needs carefully.
  5. A manager should always speak politely to their caller.

Do those examples make you wince? Would you prefer:

Each member of staff should fill in a time sheet daily.Avoids the pronoun altogether
The client needs to notify us of his or her requirements.Modern PC usage but sounds clumsy, especially if used repeatedly
Email or phone can be used by a customer applying for discounts.Rewriting the sentence as passive – more formal and wordy
People thinking of buying cars should consider their needs carefully.Making everything plural
A manager should always speak politely to his caller.Assuming everyone's a bloke – old-fashioned and not acceptable today

We go through all sorts of contortions when needing to choose the correct pronoun to stand in for a singular noun, but is it so wrong to use 'they' and 'their' instead of twisting your writing to avoid the masculine or feminine pronoun?

You wouldn't be the first

There are plenty of historical precedents for this use: a quick search of the internet reveals the following:

With all these precedents, why are we taught not to do it?

Around the 18th century, there was a trend among academics to try to make English conform to the rules of Latin grammar, Latin being considered the 'perfect' language. Many of these rather arbitrary rules became formalised by being included in texts and adopted by educators, and were then beaten in to generations of school children. They included avoiding double negatives, not splitting the infinitive, not ending sentences with prepositions and not starting them with conjunctions.

These are artificial rules – they aren't laws of nature. Why do men have to wear ties to be considered properly dressed? Why does the golfer not just walk across the grass and drop the ball in the little hole? We like rules, and we condition ourselves to follow them by punishing people who don't, rather like Pavlov training his dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell.

It has taken me a long time to stop flinching at split infinitives, and I still wince at several of the other rules just mentioned. So should you or shouldn't you?

Using they or them instead of he/she, him/her and so on is increasingly common and acceptable in modern English. It is simpler and easier to follow. Whether you should do it depends on several things:

  1. Are your readers going to worry about your usage and not notice your message?

    If your readers are older or have had a more formal education, there's a good chance that, like many of us, they have been conditioned into considering this usage wrong. They'll be tut-tutting about that and not paying attention to what you're telling them.

  2. Are you aiming for a more formal or more contemporary tone?

    What is your organisation's way of presenting itself? Which usage is most consistent with your branding or positioning?

  3. With what are you personally comfortable?

    I first wrote 'What are you personally comfortable with?' I then revised it to avoid ending on a preposition. To the modern ear, it sounds a bit stilted like that, doesn't it?

So we aren't giving you a clear yes or no – it depends on you, your readers and other factors. This does prove that the rule is just made up, with no absolute wrongness or rightness about it, like rather too much in English usage. After all, you don't have any choice about conforming to absolutes such as the laws of physics.

We do, however, intend to adopt the singular 'they' as part of the Plain Words house style, on the grounds that business communication needs above all to be clear, functional and concise.

To ensure your and your staff's business writing is the best it can be, contact us at or consider booking a training course.

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