There Their

There it is, right in the middle of the September 17, 2018  New York Times op-ed page — a pull quote from an op-ed by Stephen J. Adler, who, as president and editor-in-chief of Reuters, should surely know better: We must reject the idea that everyone is entitled to their own facts. 

What is it about Americans that make it so hard for us to know the difference between singular and plural? (Though running a British news service, Adler’s a Yank.)

“Everyone” is singular. “Their” is plural. This sentence is a mess and this mistake is all too common.

I imagine that Adler and the other people who do this (325 million Americans; looking at you) are trying to avoid the awkward “We must reject the idea that everyone is entitled to his/her own facts.” And I imagine this is especially tempting in the era of #metoo and heightened awareness of gender identity. His/her is so binary, and who says his goes first?

This is more than a matter of pinky-out pickiness about using English as Queen Victoria did. Language — even American English — exists to communicate clearly. Mixing singulars with plurals confuses, not clarifies. I’m used to this now, but the first few times I encountered the use of “their” as a gender-neutral singular I found myself wondering which pair or group of people we were now talking about when a second ago we were talking about just one.

This created in my mind what I call a “speed bump.” Within a second or two I understood what the writer meant. But that second or two slowed me down, threw me off the narrative flow of the article.

This is why I’m such a stickler about tiny mistakes that seem like things about which only a seventh-grade English teacher would care. Throw enough speed bumps in front of your readers and you’ll wear them out. Some might get tired and stop reading even though they’re interested in the topic. Remember, if you don’t get your readers to the very end of the article, you might as well have saved yourself the trouble of researching and writing everything that comes below the place where they stop reading.

The best way around this whole mess of using “their” instead of “his/her” is to make everything in the sentence plural, as in: “We must reject the idea that all of us are entitled to our own facts.” Or: “We must reject the idea that all Americans are entitled to their own facts.” It’s simple; it’s grammatically correct without being pretentious, and it creates no speed bump.

Here’s an indignity: when people click “Follow” in order to get Wordwork postings in their inboxes, I get an email:

[NAME] just started following you at They will receive an email every time you publish a post. Congratulations.

They? They? Et tu, WordPress? 



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