Stop! In the Name of Grammar!

half man half womanIt’s hard to decide which common grammar mistake is the most irritating, but the ubiquitous practice of referring to a single person as “they” is a strong contender.

Professional writers who should know better make this mistake all the time, though I doubt it is always a mistake. That is, in some misguided attempt to be politically correct and avoid gender specificity, some writers would rather sound foolish than offend some indescribable, shadowy entity that objects to differentiating between men and women.


“If an employee misses work more than twice in one calendar year without notifying management, they will be terminated”

“Each participant in the study will be injected with radioactive cockroach blood, after which they will be expected to keep notes of any changes in behavior or number of limbs.”

“If you love someone, set them free.”

“Who is your favorite blogger? I suggest you mail them a check for $100.”

Sure, you can rewrite the first clause in some instances so that the second clause becomes acceptable. For example, the first item above becomes, “Employees who miss work more than twice in one calendar year without notifying management will be terminated.”

But what to do in the case of examples 3 and 4? Simple: Choose a gender! Really. It’s ok. If a writer does not choose a gender in these scenarios, they sound foolish, don’t they?

Seriously, if you love someone, give him a bottle of Johnny Walker Black. After the participant in the radioactive-cockroach study develops an exoskeleton and feelers, keep her away from bug spray. Every writer who reads this post should double check his work for gender-avoidance errors, if he hasn’t already. Everyone who buys a gourmet cupcake today should remember her old pal Eric and get a second one for him. He prefers mint chocolate chip, but anything chocolaty will do.

Three rules in love and life:

  1. Don’t take people you care about for granted.
  2. Don’t drive on the sidewalk.
  3. Stop writing “they” and “their” when you are talking about one person.


I am aware that this is a photograph of The Marvelettes, not their Motown label mates The Supremes, from whom I paraphrased today’s post title. You see, I‘ve long been irked that the following image does not appear in online searches, as it’s one of my favorites. So, in a fit of exasperation and declaring, “If you don’t do it yourself, it won’t get done,” I took apart the CD case, removed the rear insert, scanned it, and loaded the image here. That’s right. For the first time anywhere on the internet, I present this photograph of The Marvelettes, my favorite Motown act. Get on it, Google Image Search:

The Marvelettes (from top): Katherine Anderson, Gladys Horton, and Wanda Young

The Marvelettes (from top): Katherine Anderson, Gladys Horton, and Wanda Young

40 responses to “Stop! In the Name of Grammar!

  • change it up editing

    Thank you thank you thank you Eric! The whole “they” thing drives me up a wall; believe it or not, I was told by another editor (for whom I worked at the time) that I shouldn’t correct for singular subject/plural pronoun because “the informal singular they is acceptable.” WHAAAAATTTT??? Not in my world, it isn’t!

    And since you’re a Motown fan, check out this clip of Marvin Gaye’s isolated vocal track of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” without the instrumental tracks:

    Informal singular they . . . grumble . . . grumble . . .

    • ericjbaker

      That’s exactly what i sound like in the shower. In my imagination, that is. I’d love to hear some of those harmony groups in isolated audio. Come on, Motown. You don’t mind re-releasing the same songs over and over. At least do something different with them.

  • caitliniam

    I think the fact that this mistake is made so often signifies we need to create some genderless third person word. I always write “he or she” even though it’s obnoxious and a waste of words. I’m not so much afraid of offending someone by picking a gender as I am indecisive and unwilling to decide a gender.

  • Dave

    Ugh. I haven’t checked, but I suspect I am guilty as charged. Thanks for making me feel bad, Eric … but thanks for making me think more about what I’m writing.

    Hope you had a great Sunday.

  • Setsu

    There’s been some effort to promote ze as a replacement for he/she, but integration into standard English has been slow-going.

  • Whispering Insights

    I totally agree with you …but, (at work as a counsellor) when I am doing on-line counselling with teens I struggle for example when responding to a relationship issue and I have no clue if the youth is referring to same gender or opposite sex…so in order to not offend the teen (we are talking about vulnerable youths who may be questioning their sexual orientation) then I revert to “they”. I am so guilty of this and I am aware of it. WI

    • ericjbaker

      I’m sure I do it in speech all the time, and your circumstances are unique. I’m referring to published writing, in the sense of being in an employee handbook, posted on the internet for public reading, and so on.

      Thanks for the insight and addition to the discussion!

  • Kevin Brennan

    Right on. But I do hate him/her and he/she as alternatives, don’t you?

    I can’t believe Sting is guilty as charged, though!

    • ericjbaker

      He/she is pretty lame (as lame as and/or), which is why I always pick a gender without thinking too much. I devote my mental energy to the content.

      I was trying to work a Sting joke into the text somewhere, but it wouldn’t fit without throwing off the pace. To think the guy is a former English teacher!

  • nrhatch

    Terrific post!

    “If an employee misses work more than twice in one calendar year without notifying management, [he, she, or it] will be terminated” . . . especially if he, she, or it looks like the 1/2 bearded man and overly glammed up 1/2 woman at the top of Eric’s post.

    By the way, since Eric is my favorite blogger, please send him $100 so he can treat himself to cupcakes!

  • Janna G. Noelle

    I won’t use their/they/them because you’re right – it does sound ridiculous. But I’ll never chose one gender over the other. From me, if I can’t rewrite the sentence, it will always be “s/he”, “him/her”, or “his/hers”. I’m too much of an equal opportunist to do otherwise, plus, in choosing a gender, one is also choosing to introduce the likelihood of certain subtle judgments based on the society we live in. For example, giving him a bottle of Johnny Walker Black vs. giving her one will produce two different responses in the reader.

    • ericjbaker

      To me, it is preferable to risk reader interpretation if the alternative is to sound stiff or formal, which is what he/she sounds like to me. Formality is out of place in my writing, since I go for light and breezy. I don’t know if there’s a right answer, but he = they sure isn’t it.

      Thanks, as always, for your insights and views!

      • Janna G. Noelle

        That is a fair explanation. Every writer has to choose for him-/herself (see what I just did there?) 😉

        For me, I’ll always choose formality, regardless of how stiff it may seem to some, for in my writing, I seek to create a sense of possibility, and the ability of the reader to identify. This is something that I, as a woman having grown up when the default was always “he/his/him”, have only fairly recently started to receive myself from other writers.

  • Jodi

    Although using the specific pronoun is more accurate, I kinda agree with the acceptable informal usage of they. *diving behind couch now*

  • seanbidd

    Eric, I’ll keep the information above in mind for the future. Not sure if I do use their/they/them once I’ve defined characters, but I certainly use them when undecided on a particular person/party/entity/animal/plant/etc.

    • ericjbaker

      I wrote a story once in which I had to hide the identity (and gender) of a character over a long stretch, and it did corner me into sounding passive a few times. I just think that using singular they sounds awkward. I ‘ll bet I’ve developed enough as a writer since then that I could rewrite those passages more artfully.

      Thanks for the comment!

  • Uzoma

    This is an aspect of English I find so confusing, unlike in my native language where there is a specific pronoun for it. The Oxford English dictionary supports the use of ‘they’ in this regard. But I am with you on this. Clarity matters.

  • Richard Leonard

    I always suspected that was wrong due to the plural mismatch but I just went into sheep mode because it was so common. Thanks for the spanking! Do you want the cupcake sent by airmail or surface mail?

    • ericjbaker

      Surface mail might lead to sogginess. Anyway, i decided to stop at House of Cupcakes on the way home and pay for cupcakes myself. Yummy. You can reimburse my pay pal account.


  • Smash

    Excellent post! And thank you for the reminder. I’m sure my writing is riddled with these mistakes. But going forward, now that I am consciously aware of the disastrous consequences of my actions, I will do my utmost to stop it.

  • Jill Weatherholt

    Great post, Eric! So what will it be, a hundred dollar bill, a cupcake or a bottle of Johnny Walker? Shoot! Now I have to go out into the rain and move my car off the sidewalk. You are your rules!

  • sueperryauthor

    I don’t see the English language going back to that previously correct grammar. We’ve moved beyond that his/her construction (and good riddance). In fact, I so love the way that language lives and evolves that – even when a grammatical error makes me twitch the way that this singular/they solution does – I savor the signs of evolution. I can remember a time when the use of preposition in your first rule would have triggered grammar outcries. Now it would read awkwardly to me if you instead wrote “people about whom you care”. Evolution.
    P.S. Nonetheless I will always hate the verbing of nouns.
    P.P.S. Awesome photo on this post.
    P.P.P.S. Thanks for writing a blog that is consistently worth reading.

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks! I agree with 93% of what you said. 95% if your were talking about the second photo.

      A few years ago i was reading Nancy Drew books at bedtime to my son, and I cringed at all the correctness. “Nancy had gone to the mailbox and removed the letter so that she could discover to whom it was addressed.”

      That said, I still think calling one person ‘they’ sounds clunky, like the writer is hedging.

      Thanks for the comment!

  • lectorconstans

    Using “they” and “their” saves a lot of agonizing over whether to use “he” or “she” or the irritating “he or she”.

    The trouble is, English is such a complicated language. I often wonder how we ever learn it. As someone once said, once you learn good English, to whom are you going to speak it?” (I almost said “who are you going to speak it io?”.)

    • ericjbaker

      I guess I don’t find it that hard to pick a gender. I save my agonizing for the big-picture stuff like, “Does this story make sense?” and, “Will people think this is the worst piece of crap ever written?”

      English seems pretty open to interpretation, doesn’t it? I took Korean as my foreign language in college and marveled at its perfect simplicity and almost mathematical form.

  • ShannonRaelynn

    I learn something new from you all the time. you keep it up and I will just have to hire you to help me tidy up my next manuscript when it’s done.

  • Arkenaten

    I dread when you put these things up. I read this a few days okay and immediately thought…oh shit,
    However, after trawling through three manuscripts I only found a single example that could be considered marginally suspect. So I left it.
    Seems some things I get right without much thought. Aren’t I the lucky one! lol

    Good post. These ones always make me pause for thought.

  • Raymond

    This post haunts me. The “they-their” habit is a bad one I picked up. After reading this I catch myself making the mistake often and having to correct it. I had been so happy in my grammatical ignorance- thanks killjoy ….lol great article

    • ericjbaker

      Learning stuff is the pits!

      I used to write away without a care in the world, thinking everything I came up with was brilliant. Of course, I can’t even read any of it these days without cringing in embarrassment. Now I subject myself to dozens of daily reminders, via writing blogs, books, agent web pages, and so on, about what I’m doing wrong. I’ll never fix any of these errors because I can’t, but I still have to hear about it.

      Ignorance truly is bliss.

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