Everybody thinks...

Advenedizo

Member
Spanish - Argentina
Here's a doubt I've had for quite a long time:

Which pronoun corresponds to words such as "everybody" or "nobody"? Is it OK to say "Everybody thinks they can do whatever they want"? ("they" meaning "everybody", clearly).
 
  • Technically, "everybody" is a singular. Once upon a time, when people did not think that grammatical gender was the same thing as sex, it was standard to use "he" to refer to one indeterminate person of either sex. For example, one might have said Does every student have his homework assignment? even if speaking to a class of both boys and girls. In recent decades, however, the idea has caught hold that this ancient practice is bad and wrong sexist oppression of females, or some such thing. While it is not at all gramatically incorrect to continue use "his" this way, you should be aware that the modern fondness for indignation will lead many to get outraged about it, and to condemn you for it. This means that one is left either with the awkward (but correct) "his or her", or the illogical, but easier, "their". You therefore have three choices:
    1) Use "his", and have people complain that your prose is sexist;
    2) Use "his or her", and have people complain that your prose is awkward, or
    3) use "their", and have people complain that your prose is ungrammatical...
     

    Advenedizo

    Member
    Spanish - Argentina
    You therefore have three choices:
    1) Use "his", and have people complain that your prose is sexist;
    2) Use "his or her", and have people complain that your prose is awkward, or
    3) use "their", and have people complain that your prose is ungrammatical...

    Great summary! Thanks :). This turned out to be more controversial than I'd thought, haha. So, that being said, which of the three options is the most usual, at least in the everyday register?
     

    Orange Blossom

    Senior Member
    U.S.A. English
    In casual speech, and even in more informal academic work, the use of 'their' in such situations is accepted. In more formal academic work such as journal articles, studies, research papers, master's theses, and doctoral dissertations using 'their' is not accepted. Some writers alternate the use of he and she by sentences or clauses. Others use the awkward and wordy he or she.

    Personally, I avoid the situation by recasting the sentences into plural whenever possible. However, that strategy doesn't always work well.

    Orange Blossom
     

    DBlomgren

    Senior Member
    USA
    English, USA
    ... For example, one might have said Does every student have his homework assignment? ... You therefore have three choices:
    1) Use "his", and have people complain that your prose is sexist;
    2) Use "his or her", and have people complain that your prose is awkward, or
    3) use "their", and have people complain that your prose is ungrammatical...

    To Greenwhiteblue's solutions, I would add:
    4) Make the subject plural: Do all the students have their homework assignments?

    I used this strategy a lot in my past life as an editor.

    Notice, Advenedizo, that in English when we refer to an object that everyone (or more than one) has/does/wants, etc., we often make it plural (e.g. assignments), unlike in Spanish. But that's a different grammar topic for another day...
     
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