Charles Harrington Elster

Charlie's next book, coming in October 2018

"Give me my typewriter and my dictionary, and just let me suffer!"
— Robertson Davies

"Writing is at the mercy of the largest number of amateurs—almost the entire population."
— Jacques Barzun

"When a writer thinks of his readers, common sense will tell him that a few of them will certainly not be his intellectual equals, but that the majority will be so, and that there will be some who are greatly his superiors; he should comport himself as a gentleman toward all of them." — Robertson Davies

"Nearly every fiction writer in the world drinks more whisky than is good for him. He does it to give himself faith, hope, and courage. A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom."
— Roald Dahl

Copyright © 2003-2018
by Charles Harrington Elster

Note: Every article on this blog page, and on this website, is protected by copyright. Reproduction of any kind without permission is prohibited.


Below are ten abbreviations of Latin terms. Do you know what they stand for in Latin and in English?

1. MS or ms.
2. PS or P.S.
3. i.e.
4. e.g.
5. N.B. or n.b.
6. c. or ca.
7. et al.
8. cf.
9. q.v.
10. ibid.

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To Err Is Inhuman

“I’m afraid that surprise, shock, and regret is the fate of authors when they finally see themselves on the page. . . . Seeing one’s inadequate English frozen into type is a humiliating experience.” — Julia Child, My Life in France

“I think of it as it could have been, with its prolixities docked, its dullnesses enlivened, its fads eliminated, its truths multiplied.”
— From the dedication page of
H. W. Fowler's Modern English Usage (1926)

The Accidents of Style is a crash course in careful usage.

The Accidents of Style is in USA Today.

One Writer's Ravings

A Logogogue's Blog for Language Lovers

Should Everyone Get Their Lunch?

August 29, 2017

"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.


  1. February 15, 2018 6:34 PM PST
    This is a topic which I've been wondering about for quite a while since I see writers use the indefinite pronouns everyone, anyone, nobody,(I'll have another question about Oxford commas at another time) and somebody followed by a plural such as "their".
    Grammatically, that never made sense to me and being bilingual has only added to the depths of wonder. In Spanish and all of its relatives (so far as I know) when there is a group of people or items if the group is mixed, both men and women, masculine and feminine gendered words, it is always masculine.
    Once again, though, the ruling you made makes sense and is cogent.
    Thank you for shedding light on this to everyone who has been racking their brains on this.
    I still want to say "his".
    - John Stack IV

Selected Works

Colin Kaepernick and Charles Harrington Elster have something in common: exercising their First Amendment rights.
In the cover story for the October-November 2013 issue of Copyediting, Charlie looks at how the relative pronoun who is taking over the traditional role of that and which.
Read Charlie's amiable rant on redundancy, which appeared in the August-September 2012 issue of Copyediting.
Timeless tips for aspiring vocabulary builders.
Charlie beats up on Merriam-Webster in the Boston Globe.
At a loss for words? Read one of Charlie's guest "On Language" columns for The New York Times Magazine.
Read Charlie's guest "On Language" piece about resistentialism.
Shopping for a new dictionary? Here's some sage advice.
Charlie's brave new words for a wireless world.
Read one of Charlie's articles in SPELL/Binder.
Read a profile of Charlie in San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles.
Charlie explains why he left the public radio show.