The Politically Correct Pronoun and Why It Doesn't Always Work
Monday, September 26, 2011 Grammar and Mechanics
By Brian Timmerman, Manager of Writing Tutoring Services
Sure, it’s the 21st century. I get it: Being sensitive to gender is important. But honestly, if I see one more singular their or they used to avoid even addressing gender in a sentence, I’m going to take your computer away from you.
If you’re unclear, let me give you a few examples of what I’m talking about. These types of faux pas are usually found in broad, sweeping social claims.
For instance, someone might say, “A good doctor knows when to listen to his patient.” This construction assumes that all doctors are male, which is obviously faulty.
So you, a reasonable human being who wants to avoid bias, write, “A good doctor knows when to listen to their patient.”
Me?: Well, I’m crying in a fetal position, wondering how my 95-year-old grandmother, a retired English teacher, failed America.
Now, grammatically speaking, you’re wrong. The pronoun must always match the subject in number. In this example, your subject (doctor) is singular, and your pronoun (their) is plural, resulting in a mismatch. In the end, the politically incorrect person wins.
Someone else might say, “In America, anyone can purchase a firearm so long as he does not have a criminal record.”
So you write, “In America, anyone can purchase a firearm so long as they do not have a criminal record.”
Me: I feel a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced.
Again, you’re trying not to be a misogynist, which is commendable, but in the process you’ve constructed a weak sentence.
Now, my guess is that you’re thinking of a quick and easy solution here: Why don’t you just replace the his with a his or her and the they with a he or she? Problem solved, right? Well, not so fast. His or her and he or she should be used rarely per, you guessed it, APA. Instead, revise the subject to fit the plural pronoun:
Good doctors (plural) know when to listen to their (plural) patients.
In America, citizens (plural) can purchase a firearm so long as they (plural) do not have a criminal record.
So there you are. I’ll end my rant. And you can keep your computer.