"Hello, Charlie," writes Roman, a fan of my Verbal Advantage. "Throughout the program you use the noun person with such possessive pronouns as his or her depending on the context. I was wondering if it wouldn't be better to use their instead?
That's not an easy question to answer, I replied.
The problem of which pronoun to use with nouns like everyone and person — singular and gender-specific (e.g., his, her), or plural and gender-neutral (e.g., their) — is an old one, dating back to the 14th century. You can cite plenty of reputable usage from earlier English that employs their as a singular, or often a notionally singular and plural, pronoun; for example, in The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare writes, "There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend." But since the 18th century, when the reigning grammarians (all of them male, of course) decreed — contrary to a good deal of reputable usage — that the pronoun should be singular and male ("Every person should do his best"), we have been stuck in a gender-specific rut and struggling to find a nonsexist way out.
Today I wouldn't hesitate to write "Every person should do their best" or "Everyone prepared themselves well" because idiomatic constructions like these have for the most part become acceptable written English, and I am comfortable with them. But in the early 1990s, when I wrote Verbal Advantage (it was first published as an audio program; the book came out in 2000), I was far less sure of where I stood on this question, and, like many writers at that time, I tried to finesse the situation in various ways, not always successfully.
To avoid pairing a plural their with a singular noun, sometimes I went the traditional route and used a male pronoun, which has been justly criticized as sexist but which at the time was the path of least resistance: "When a vindictive person feels wronged, he is driven to retaliate at all costs."
Sometimes I used the "his or her" construction, which has been justly criticized as unwieldy and tedious but which can sometimes be the lesser evil if you don't resort to it too often: " . . . the mispronouncer does the disservice of passing along his or her mispronunciations"; "The candid person expresses his or her thoughts frankly and openly." To my ear, their would have been more ungainly in those constructions, drawing too much attention to the singular noun-plural pronoun coupling.
And occasionally I used a device that was popular at the time but that I would hesitate to recommend now because most agree that it's contrived and self-conscious: alternating male and female pronouns: "The fastidious person is so excessively concerned with details that he may become squeamish or disgusted if things are not just right. The fastidious person may also be so hard to please, so critical and demanding, that she appears contemptuous of others."
My reasoning, if I recall correctly, was that if I used a grab-bag of pronouns, depending on what felt best for the context, I might avoid criticism for being either too traditional or too loosey-goosey. But perhaps that strategy was naive.
In their 1999 book Sleeping Dogs Don't Lay, Richard Lederer and Richard Dowis discuss this problem sensibly and helpfully, and offer writers this advice: "The best solution — the way to avoid sexism, tedium, and even the appearance of bad grammar — is to recast the sentence." And they offer several good strategies for revision, including one that I used often in Verbal Advantage — changing the pronoun to a noun: e.g., "If you emulate a person you try to surpass or outdo that person's ability or achievement." But Lederer and Dowis acknowledge that "the downside of this is that recasting denies a writer some flexibility," and therein lies the rub. Until the language evolves to the point where the rusty shackles of the 18th-century grammarians have been cast off, using their with a singular noun will continue to carry some stigma and trouble careful writers.
Now, if you're still reading this, let me share a subsequent question, and my answer to it, that came in from another fan, Aditya Narayan: "What will be your preference between 'Everyone stood up and shouted at the top of their lungs' and 'Everyone stood up and shouted at the top of his lungs'"?
My ruling on this may dismay some ultra-purists, I responded, but history, necessity, and contemporary reality all call for (and justify) their following everyone in this case, not his. Although indefinite pronouns like everyone, anyone, nobody, and somebody are traditionally construed as singular ("Everyone is here now"; "Somebody is at the door"), when the indefinite pronoun is an antecedent tied to a referent pronoun there is invariably an implication of plurality that calls for a plural referent pronoun: e.g., "Everybody brought their own lunch"; "Nobody there could speak a word of English, but they were all nice to me." It's hard to imagine how, in the first example, his would be an improvement (are we certain it's an all-male group?), and in the second example it's impossible to see how a singular pronoun could work at all.
The point is that this usage is established, idiomatic English, and not just a recent outgrowth of the movement to avoid sexist language. Bergen and Cornelia Evans's Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957) tells us that it can be found in the works of our greatest writers, from Malory and Shakespeare and Swift to the present.