Grammar Challenge #4


Everyone should bring ___ favorite stapler. 

A. his

B. his or her

C. their

D. any of the above


Answer and Explanation

This is a really common kind of sentence, so you'd think it would be easy to answer. But it's not only tricky, it's a point of significant grammatical controversy. Some of you aren't going to like my answer, in fact. 

But here we go. 

The answer is D, though traditionalists will prefer B, grammarians with feminist sympathies will prefer C, and the majority of regular English speakers will prefer A.

Let's try to understand the problem.

Everyone is considered a singular pronoun, and numerical agreement dictates that only a singular pronoun can point to it. Thus, their, a plural pronoun, would be in disagreement with it.

The problem comes with deciding which singular 3rd person pronoun is the appropriate alternative. Since everyone is gender neutral, and the context of the sentence makes it impossible to know if everyone is referring to only males, only females, or some of both, would his or her -- the only two singular options -- be better?

Tradition says that in such a case, the masculine pronoun should be used in a gender-neutral way, thus Everyone should bring his own bag lunch would be the proper solution.

But that custom is now considered passively sexist. Why should the masculine pronoun be used in all cases?

People disagree about how to appropriately address the issue. I talk about this at some length in a blog post here if you are interested, but suffice it to say that, regardless of the various scholarly opinions on it, common usage has clearly decided upon a solution: when in doubt about the gender of the antecedent, use their. This works because their is gender neutral.

I'm fine with this solution because it seems reasonable to consider everyone a plural pronoun in the first place. But regardless of how you feel about it, this is the direction English is going. It won’t be long before dictionaries and style guides all recognize a singular use of their (or a plural use of everyone, whichever way you want to look at it).

That said, most conscientious writers find ways around the controversy altogether, and that is rather easy in a sentence like this. Since their is fine for some and egregious to others, I advise skipping it and writing something like: Everyone should bring a bag lunch…. That seems clear enough and avoids any need for a possessive pronoun.

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