Speaking of He or She

“A person shooting a moose should make sure that their gun has more than one round in it.”

“A person” is singular, but “their” is plural.

Honestly? I don’t mind. English speakers have been doing the “they” trick for a long time, and complaining about it is actually the more recent development.

But it is a little weird when I see a Facebook status update that says, “Juanita has updated their profile picture.”

For one thing, who is this Juanita?

For another, though I can get used to seeing “their” (instead of “his” or “his or her”) when the sex of the person is unknown, it’s a little weird to see it when the sex is obvious. I know, of course, that Facebook can’t guess Juanita’s chromosomal makeup, let alone her self-image. I understand the issue.

But it’s weird. The question is, will it become less weird?

As we suffer under more and more computer ignorance, and we more and more avoid distinguishing between the sexes, will we end up always using “they” and “their,” regardless of the sex?

I mean, a hundred years down the road, will we just have one word for the third person singular and plural, masculine and feminine? Will people say, “he gave me their book,” meaning “he gave me his book”?

This isn’t crazy. I’ve commented before (in a longish post) on the fact that “you” is only recently both plural and singular. It sounds like some kind of backwards cheer, but if YOU can do it, THEY can too.


2 Responses to “Speaking of He or She”

  1. May 31, 2011 at 5:07 pm #

    This is very interesting, and I bet I’m not the only other person to have thought about this issue too…

    French being my native language, I immediately thought of how we handle possessive pronouns at the third person in this language. They do in fact vary in gender, but in relation to the “possessed” instead of the “possessor”, so gender aggreement is never an issue!


    Bob lost HIS key. = Bob a perdu SA clé. (feminine)
    Bob lost HIS pencil. = Bob a perdu SON crayon. (masculine)

    Alice lost HER key. = Alice a perdu SA clé. (feminine)
    Alice lost HER pencil. = Alice a perdu SON crayon. (masculine)

    While the possessor’s gender may not always be known, the possessed’s gender never poses ambiguity. Way easier 😉

    Then again, objects have a gender in French, which his confusing to many non-native speakers… But that is another issue!

  2. June 2, 2011 at 7:09 pm #

    Hugo, I studied French long enough to think that noun genders is more confusing, not less!


    But yes, it certainly eliminates the “their” problem.

    Thanks for your comment. I love thinking about how other languages handle similar cases.

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