Rewrite Sentences to Avoid Misusing Their

The fourth question is May I ever use their as a neutral pronoun? The answer is no. Even though many people use the word their as a gender-neutral pronoun in business conversation, employing this usage in writing should be avoided; it is considered too informal. There's no question that English lacks a gender-neutral pronoun and that it would be handy to have one. The question is what to do without it. Consider, for example, this sentence:

Mohammed and Hannah have initiated a discussion project so that each Arab and Jew is able to discuss his feelings about the Mideast crisis.

Do you see the problem? Not all Arabs and Jews are men. The pronoun "his" is intended to represent all people, and using it in this way is grammatically correct. But it's politically incorrect, and it may be confusing. Some people, after reading that sentence, may think that Mohammed and Hannah are arranging for a group of men to discuss the Mideast crisis.

A better solution is to rewrite the sentence to reflect a plural rather than a singular reference, as shown here:

Mohammed and Hannah have initiated a discussion project so that all Arabs and Jews are able to discuss their feelings about the Mideast crisis.

What do you think about this revision? Isn't it better? Revising from a singular to a plural reference to avoid confusing or inaccurate implications is always a good idea, and sometimes it's crucial. Note that in the following example, the lack of a neutral singular pronoun results in an odd structure:

Morris, a pianist, and Sophie, a flutist, each won a scholarship for his musical ability.

Obviously the sentence must be rewritten. How about this?

Morris, a pianist, and Sophie, a flutist, both won scholarships for their musical abilities.

Sometimes rewriting the sentence is tougher. For example:

The featured speaker will address the chemical disposal problem and how their company is handling it.

If you don't know who the featured speaker will be, what do you do? Do you use "his or her," highlighting that the speaker hasn't yet been selected? Or do you allow the use of the word their? One possibility is to rewrite the sentence:

The featured speaker will address the chemical disposal problem and how to handle it.

Better? Most people agree that avoiding the issue is the better alternative in business writing, and the easiest way to avoid the issue is to make sure that you use "he" only when the reference refers to a singular male.

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