Words Matter: What’s with the flagrant misuse of ‘their’?

If you want to be gender-neutral in your writing and your speech, why must you use bad grammar to accomplish this?

Phil Robertson of A&E's
Since Phil Robertson of A&E's "Duck Dynasty" is known for his political incorrectness, we're wondering about his take on the misuse of "their."

WASHINGTON, March 6, 2015 – I can’t take it anymore. American English grammar has been on the downslope for what seems like an eternity now. But the unbelievably idiotic misuse of the possessive pronoun “their” has simply gotten out of control.

Check out this example from CNBC. Referencing the Apple Watch, whose availability is to be formally announced on Monday, published just this afternoon, someone named Cadie Thompson writes the following:

“According to a 9to5 Mac report, the device will have a longer battery life than expected. The report cited sources that said the device could handle five hours of heavy app usage and would last a whole day with mixed usage.

“The report also cited sources as saying one feature in the watch will be called the Heart Rate Glance and will enable the user to check their heart rate at any time.”

If you were alert, you caught the problem in the second paragraph of this quotation: the Heart Rate Glance feature “will enable the user to check their heart rate at any time.” The use of “their” in this sentence is flat-out wrong. But it’s an error we see all the time.

The flagrant misuse of “their” has been around for quite some time now, although it’s reached epidemic proportions to the point where it may no longer be correctable. The usage clearly rose out of the world of PC and specifically feminist agitation geared toward purging the English language of its allegedly inherent sexism and overall patriarchal intent.

To wit: the previously accepted way to pen the offending phrase would likely have been “…will enable the user to check his heart rate at any time.” Back in the day, the possessive pronoun “his” not only referred to a male actor in a sentence. It also served as a neuter gender possessive pronoun when the individual referenced in the sentence was theoretical or unknown.

That worked just fine for centuries until the PC Police and the gender feminists decided that it wasn’t fine. For them, the use of “his” was inherently sexist and had to go. Rather than subject themselves to criticism, the always-wimpy academic community was the first to capitulate to this revisionist nonsense. Today, deploying “his” in a sentence or phrase like the one under discussion will mark you as a male Neanderthal who likely was raised in the pre-historic 1950s. The horror! The horror!

In fact, the incorrect use of “their” turned out to be the quick, facile, and lazy way to avoid the risk of being denounced by the language police. Although it’s glaringly obvious in its misuse—it doesn’t agree in number with its non-gender specific antecedent single “user” in our example—it’s also a one-size-fits-all cheap and brainless fix for those who don’t care, which these days seems to be nearly everyone.

While “his” would still be the technically correct usage in our example, anyone who wants to avoid offending the easily-offended with that usage can easily skirt this issue by deploying one of two easy and correct solutions.

First, if you’re worried your audience might stone you for using “his,” you could simply bow in both directions and write out our phrase in the following manner:

“…will enable the user to check his or her heart rate at any time.” There we go. Equal opportunity for all. Simple, easy. Rephrasing in this manner acknowledges that “the user” could be either “him” or “her.” Or “he” or “she.”

On the other hand we can slightly alter the sentence in a way that actually makes “their” correct, as we’ll do right here:

“…will enable users to check their heart rates at any time.” Now we have plural, neuter gender “users,” so we can correctly employ the corresponding plural possessive pronoun, “their” to modify the antecedent. Note we also alter “rate” singular to “rates” plural to keep everything in agreement.

Neither of these genteel, grammatically acceptable examples of politically correct usage should offend anyone, since they accomplish the same objective while maintaining correct English grammar. For that reason, why writers and speakers insist on going for the lazy, sloppy misuse of “their” to avoid getting sent to the gender penalty box is beyond me.

My two suggestions here are both politically correct and grammatically correct, so why not use whichever one of them suits your fancy? If you choose to succumb to the Language Police, for God’s sake, at least do it with a little intelligence and dignity.

We’ll end our “their” dissertation here, without getting into a diatribe about that insulting, condescending and impersonal term “the user,” which rivals “the consumer” in its consummate ability to irritate one’s sensibilities.

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  • Terry, if even one person corrects this pervasive error, your call out was worth it. Next, could we discuss apostrophe abuse, your vs. you’re, and subject/verb agreement in general? Do I ask too much?