Gender-neutral third person singular pronouns: May 2005: Everyone has a right to <?> privacy? his, her, its, their?

Discussion in 'English Only' started by tadahisa, May 19, 2005.

  1. tadahisa New Member

    Japan Japanese
    Hi, I am sending this from Japan. Please help me. It the "their" in the sentence below grammatically correct?

    "Everyone has a right their privacy."
  2. Artrella Banned


    Hi Tadahisa, welcome to WR! :)

    Yes it is correct. They used "their" in this case to avoid "his/her". Since we don't know if the person is a man or a woman, we use "their". It's worth mentioning that "everybody" needs a singular verb, but because of the reason I've mentioned you can write "their" and it is grammatically correct.
    I think there is something missing in your sentence, maybe you should have said "Everyone has a right to (keep) their privacy" ??
  3. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    English (England)
    I would say it is fine, I am sure others would disagree - they would probably recommend his/her instead.

    Basically, in colloquial English we can use "they" (and therefore all the associated words, "them" "their" etc) to refer to a single individual, if you don't know who that person was, or don't know their sex.

    For example, "Someone robbed me in the street yesterday!" "oh no! "Did you see their face?". In writing some people criticise this usage, but in speech it would sound very unnatural to say "Did you see this person's face" or "Did you see his or her face?".

    One alternative is to always assume the masculine eg "everyone has a right to his privacy" and "Did you see his face?" but others dislike this choice because it is sexist to assume a male, or sometimes completely confusing as in my attacker example - someone may assume you are saying it was definitely a man, when it could have been a woman.

    To sum up - I think it's fine, but in writing if you want to avoid possible criticism write it another way.

    Hope that helps.
  4. Artrella Banned


    Hi Tim, what are you referring to? To the use of "their/they/them" in writing? or to the use of "his"?
  5. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    English (England)
    The use of "they" (their, them etc) to refer to a single person. Many people really hate that usage (I'm not one!!) it's like people who want you to say whom instead of who, or not split your infinitives, that kind of thing.
  6. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    It should be "Everyone has a right to their privacy", however.
  7. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    English (England)
    Well spotted.:thumbsup:
  8. Artrella Banned


    Yes, right, but it is worth mentioning that you can see examples using it in Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries... :rolleyes:
    I like it!!! :thumbsup:
  9. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Chicago, IL
    US English/Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    I always use "they" in speech but would never use it in formal writing. I would opt for "his or her," "one," or a rewording of the sentence.
  10. Helicopta

    Helicopta Senior Member

    England - English (Learning Spanish)
    In this sentence it can be easily avoided by simply taking it out: "Everyone has a right to privacy"

    I wouldn't criticise anyone who used they/them/their, I would be happy for them to do so!
  11. Stimpy New Member

    What about 'its', nobody has mentioned of it yet? Can we say 'its privacy'?
  12. lainyn

    lainyn Senior Member

    Canadian English
    No. Its is used only for inanimate objects or unfamiliar (non-pet) animals.
  13. Outsider Senior Member

    Portuguese (Portugal)
    As in other Indo-European languages, the neuter 'its' cannot be used with people. Only animals, objects or abstractions.
  14. tadahisa New Member

    Japan Japanese
    Hi, everyone! I am very surprised and pleased to see such a huge number of people have replied to my question. "Everyone has a right to (sorry, missing) their privacy." was given by a TOEFL preparation text, which has no explanation why the "their" part is incorrect. Now that I have got some hints, I guess I can get by. Thank you all! Tadahisa.
  15. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Chicago, IL
    US English/Palestinian Arabic bilingual're dealing with the TOEFL here! :D

    The reason the TOEFL would consider it incorrect is that "their" (plural) does not grammatically agree with "everyone" (singular). ;)

    (Before anyone jumps down my throat, "everyone" is grammatically singular, obviously not in real life. That is, we say "Everyone is [not are] happy.")

    So that's why...
  16. tadahisa New Member

    Japan Japanese
    Wow!, thank you very much, elroy. I did not now that you could practically say, "Everyone is [not are] happy." That question has been worth asking! Tadahisa
  17. JLanguage Senior Member

    Georgia, US
    USA: American English, Learning Hebrew and Spanish
    Timpeac, I'm going to have to disagree with you there. Everyone is a singular noun, therefore in formal writing you should use his. Everyone has a right to his privacy.

    I am aware that many people including myself often use their as a neutral singular pronoun, but this is not yet established as correct usage.

    My two cents,
  18. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Chicago, IL
    US English/Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    Yup! "Everyone" is a singular indefinite pronoun. If you'd like more information, here's a more detailed explanation of indefinite pronouns in English:

    no one/nobody



    Singular indefinite pronouns ALWAYS take a singular verb:

    Somebody is in my room.
    Nobody wants to come with me.
    Each of my friends has a sister.

    Plural indefinite pronouns ALWAYS take a plural verb:

    Both of my sisters are married.
    Few of my friends like apples.

    The ones in the last category can be singular or plural, depending on context:

    Some of my friends are here
    Some of the cake has been eaten.

    All of my cookies are gone.
    All of my energy is gone.

    I hope this makes things a little clearer...
  19. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Chicago, IL
    US English/Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    I agree with you 100%, Jonathan. That's why I said I'd never use it in writing. Normally I would prefer "his" but political correctness and feminism decry such usage as sexist, and that is what has led to the rise of such alternatives as "his or her."

    (Personally I think "his" is completely fine because I don't think that's what indicates whether or not you're a mysogynist!)

    PS: "Everyone" is a pronoun, not a noun.
  20. timpeac

    timpeac Senior Member

    English (England)
    Hi Jonathan - I'm a bit confused by what you may be disagreeing with - I knew lots of people would think as you do, which is why I highlighted this fact. I did write -

    "To sum up - I think it's fine, but in writing if you want to avoid possible criticism write it another way"

    You can't disagree with that surely, as it is what you are also advocating?
  21. ameridude Member

    "Everyone has a right to privacy."

    use this form -- it eliminates the incorrectness of "their", the inappropriate use of "his", and the awkwardness of "his/her"
  22. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale

    It's been established usage for at least a couple centuries. Now, you may or may not agree with it, but I assure you fine writers are not all on your side. (But many are!)

    If you study the issue, you'll find out that about half agree with you, and half don't.

    It's just another example of a subject that people have been arguing passionately about for a very long time. I've posted examples before. This subject keeps coming up again and again, but unfortunately the answers from past threads (some very good) never seem to be where we can find them.

    The problem is logic, and I'll leave you to think about this sentence, which I've used before:

    Everyone had a wonderful time at our part, but unfortunately HE had to leave early.

    Yes, you can reword the sentence, but sooner or later you will write a sentence that you won't want to reword just because a pronoun is grammatically singular but acts like a plural. ;)

    And see if you think these are the sentences of poor writers:

    "but God send every one their heart's desire" (Shakespeare)

    "Let us give everybody thier due." (Dickens)

    So the real question is this: do we pay more attention to a TOEFL preparation text or to some of the greatest writers who have ever lived?

  23. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    That solves the problem in one sentence, but it does nothting about the larger problem, and it does nothing to explain why the sentence asked about was expecting only one answer. :)

  24. mjscott Senior Member

    Until you get all writers and speakers to agree not to use collective nouns and third person verbs, you're not going to get one answer. Better to advise the questioner as to which is correct, (collective nouns and second person verbs); common usage in the English world (you see collective nouns used both ways--with second and third person verbs); but most importantly (for her present benefit) HOW they're going to grade her on this test--if you know about the test.

    Usually test-givers are not interested in whether or not you know that half of the English-speaking world uses collective nouns incorrectly with their corresponding verbs. They also don't care as to whether you have any awareness that the use of he/his as pronouns in such a sentence is somewhat politically incorrect in today's world. There is no space in the margins to explain all this--if you write in the margins with a #2 pencil the scoring machines will mark that entire portion of your test incorrectly--as if you have bubbled in more than one answer.

    My suggestion: KNOW which is correct, KNOW what is common usage, but most of all, know what the expectations will be on the test.

    (NOTE: The only reason I say this, is that in the world of education we are trained with the goal of students experiencing SUCCESS. Sometimes the higher we get on the educational ladder, the more tests are written by anal-retentive PhDs whose sole purpose is to trip you up on a technicality rather than teach you the language. In the meantime, rather than inspiring the learning of language, the tests created stifle new learners into thinking that learning a new language is near-impossible--what with the rule book saying one thing, English speakers saying another, and Woody Allen being somewhere in the mix.)

    Much change is happening in learning all over. They are seeing the value in hiring expert raters to read and rate essay answers--wherein tadahisha could explain that the rule says one thing, but by experience she sees that there is a variance between what the rule says and what real people say and write. The value of tadahisha having that perception will get her further in the learning of English than memorizing a rule--don't you think?

    I am hesitant to post my thoughts, because on the other hand I believe in learning specific rules and having exactness in what you write. It's just when our very best of WordReference English parsers are at odds, and there is a test out there that is validating successes of second-language learners on whether they answer a, b, c, d, or none of the above on a mechanized bubble test, it sometimes steams my clams.

    Everyone has a right to _____ own opinion.
    a. his--used exclusively in the English-spoken and written world;
    b. his/her--correct, but not followed always in script and speech;
    c. their--used by some, if your home-town starts with the letters A-F, but not D followed by a consonant;
    d. a and not c above;
    e. b on months with 31 days and d on alternating Fridays whose dates coincide with the first quarter of a new moon;
    f. I think I'll go drown my sense of language failure in merlot and chocolate
  25. Emmeline^ New Member

    Everyone has a right for their privacy?
  26. Kelly B

    Kelly B Senior Member

    USA English
    Agreeing with mjscott: tailor the response to the form of the question, if it is on an exam. If the verb in the sentence indicates that everyone is used in the singular, "everyone has," then stay consistent with the singular usage and use "his."

    Gaer's example has me stuck. I wish I had some merlot lying around; guess I'll just have to double up on the chocolate.
  27. elroy

    elroy Motley mod

    Chicago, IL
    US English/Palestinian Arabic bilingual
    "To," not "for."

    As for the "their vs. his vs. his/her vs. rewording" debate, you'll find plenty about that if you read through the thread.
  28. gaer

    gaer Senior Member

    Fort Lauderdale
    I don't know if this makes any sense, but I'm laughing at what you said, yet I'm taking it very seriously.

    All my life I've hated "bubble tests", and I've never scored well on them. Also, countless questions have seemed less logical than your a-f question above.

    When I'm teaching and students are preparing for any kind of written tests, I always have to teach what I think is NOT correct in order to enable them to pass the test. Its "steams my clams" too.

    The problems are similar to the grammatical issues we discuss here. In music we have "theory", but somehow the gap between what theory teachers state is correct and what fine composers do seems to be more extreme and more easily shown.

    I'll give one example that will probably confuse all non-musicians here, so if you don't write music, skip this:

    A fully diminished chord is explained by starting with a 7 chord and lowering all notes except the root. Thus a C7 chord becomes a C diminished this way:

    C-E-G-Bb becomes C-Eb-Gb-Bbb.

    No typo. The last is "B double-flat". I remember smiling when a great theory teacher at college said, "Now let me tell you which minor composers wrote this chord incorrectly: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven…"

    The list was much longer, of course, and his point was that NONE of the famous composers followed this rule all the time because it causes notational insanity. Not always, but often enough to cause BIG problems.

    So blind obedience to rules is a problem in language, in music, in countless things. We don't have time to explain why, as teachers, the advice we are giving about how to answer questions is not only at least partially wrong but may be crippling later on.

    My conclusion: there is no answer. We need rules, obviously. And those learning who have no rules are usually going to be lost. I suppose my only big regret is that most teachers do not say: "This is the rule for people who are learning basics, and for now you would be wise to follow it, but be warned that there is much more to it that you will learn in the future. So don't be surprised when you find out that fine writers and speakers don't always follow it."

  29. te gato

    te gato Senior Member

    Calgary, Alberta
    Alberta--TGE (te gato English)
    This one is a very tricky are dealing with many things in one itty-bitty sentence...

    are all personal pronouns..and they are in 3rd person singular...

    Is a subjective indefinite pronoun..and also an objective indefinite pronoun...
    and when used creates a gender problem...

    is used a gender-non-specific singular pronoun...
    used by the likes of Jane Austen..Shakespeare..and others..
    so in writing it can be used...

    you can say..
    'Everyone has a right to their privacy'...
    and it would be correct...

  30. chopin7 Senior Member


    It's a documentary about Ferrari.
    Here's what narrator says at the end,
    "With its V1 2 heart pumping
    as it never has before, and its aerodynamic body cutting the ItaIian air,
    the new Ferrari is now free of the factory,
    and on its way to an owner
    who's waited two years for their prize."

    Is it okay this "their prize"?
    Shouldn't it be "his/her prize"?

    Thank you
  31. DocPenfro

    DocPenfro Senior Member

    Little England
    English - British
    If you type "his/her or their" into the search box at the top of this page, you will find several previous threads that deal with this question. There is no "correct" answer to this; it is largely a matter of personal style and taste.

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