December 2004 Vol. 9 Issue 7
Grammar Trap: their, they, them vs. his, he, him

It's a common mistake arising from good intentions: you want to use gender-neutral pronouns, so you write "their," "they," and "them" instead of "his," "he," and "him."

There's just one problem: "their," "they," and "them" are plural pronouns and should not be used with singular subjects or objects.

Unacceptable examples

When a person gets their license they should know better.

When a customer comes in employees should talk to them immediately.

"Person" and "customer" are singular. "Their," "they," and "them" are plural.

Gender-neutral solutions

Make subjects/objects and verbs plural:

When people get their licenses they should know better.

When customers come in employees should talk to them immediately.

Use both pronouns

When a person gets his or her license he or she should know better.

When a customer comes in employees should talk to him or her immediately.

Address the reader directly

When you get your license you should know better.

When you come in employees should talk to you immediately.

Visit our archive for past Grammar Traps.

Kevin Leigh Smith, kevlsmith@purdue.edu