Getting Personal with Pronouns


—Bite-sized advice for better business writing—

Getting Personal with Pronouns

“The fact is I think I am a verb instead of a personal pronoun. A verb is anything that signifies to be; to do; or to suffer. I signify all three.”

— Ulysses S. Grant

Personal pronouns are, well . . . personal. They stand in for our names—I, me, my, we, us, our, you, your, she, he, her, him, they, them. When we speak and write in business, we should show respect by using whatever pronouns a person prefers.

I recently tripped up with a new work team—some longtime collaborators and some new to me. “I’m glad to be on this team with so many intelligent and talented women,” I said, in part as a compliment but in part to signal my support for a colleague of mine who had transitioned over the last year. She smiled her thanks.

“I’m not a woman,” replied a different longtime colleague of mine, who, I suddenly realized, was transitioning even then.

“I’m sorry,” I replied. “That’s totally my fault. I apologize. I’ll get that right.”

How can I avoid a gaffe like that?

I asked myself exactly that question and came up with a few future do’s and don’ts.

  1. Don’t make gender an issue. I shouldn’t have brought up the gender of my colleagues at all.
  2. Don’t signal. My colleague knew that I supported her, and the rest of the team would figure it out without my need to signal.
  3. Do apologize if you mess up. Don’t dismiss the issue or defend what you did. Instead apologize and pledge to do better.
  4. Do put in the effort. A couple days later, I tripped up again with my other friend, accidentally letting “her” slip. I apologized and said, “It’s they, them, their, right?” They responded with a smile and a nod.

Can I use plural pronouns for singular people?

The grammatical answer has changed over the last ten years.

I used to teach that “they” cannot refer to a singular individual since it is a plural pronoun. I used to say it must be, “Someone left his or her laptop in the conference room.” But “his or her” is gender-binary and clunky. We’ve all quite naturally said, “Someone left their laptop in the conference room,” and everyone has understood.

If you can write around the problem, do so: “Someone left a laptop in the conference room.” But if you are writing about a specific person who prefers they, them, their, use those pronouns.

Why is English so contradictory?

Surprise, surprise—English is broken. It needs a singular, third-person, non-gendered pronoun that can refer to people, but we don’t have one. In fact, we don’t really even have a singular second-person pronoun.

We used to have thou, thy, thine for second-person singular, and you, your, yours for second-person plural. But you was also used as a term of respect, and everyone wants respect. So thou eventually faded away, leaving only the plural you. After all, it’s “you are,” not “you is,” even when referring to just one person.

Now, when we want to make clear that we mean more than one, we might say, “you all” or “y’all” or even “you’ins” or “youse.” Usage broke the language, and now usage is trying to fix it again.

Grammar always follows usage. When language no longer works, people change it, and grammarians scramble to write new rules. And this is one of them: they can refer to a singular person. (So say the Chicago Manual of Style, the Modern Language Association, and the Associated Press Stylebook.)


Play the Editor!

Correct each sentence using the person’s preferred pronouns (shown in parentheses). You might need to adjust verbs as well. Then scroll down to see our recommendation.

  1. Kase completes her documentation after she goes home each night. (they, them, their)
  2. Dylan has his inbox full of unopened emails, so he needs to unsubscribe. (she, her, hers)
  3. I told Kris I would speak with them after they file a report. (he, him, his)
  4. Did thou receive thy paycheck? (you, your, yours)
  5. Leslie has her author signing at his favorite watering hole. (they, them, their)

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Editor’s Recommendations

  1. Kase completes their documentation after they go home each night. (they, them, their)
  2. Dylan has her inbox full of unopened emails, so she needs to unsubscribe. (she, her, hers)
  3. I told Kris I would speak with him after he files a report. (he, him, his)
  4. Did you receive your paycheck? (you, your, yours)
  5. Leslie has their author signing at their favorite watering hole. (they, them, their)