His or their? He, she, or they?

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Image by Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A questioner asked:

Which is correct: Thank you to every student who went out of HIS way…OR…THEIR way?

The traditional answer to this question is “his.” However, for many years, people have been looking for an alternative. Many have been proposed, but the one that seems to stick is using “their.”

This question usually comes in the form of “What subject pronoun should be used when the gender of the individual is unknown?” In this case, the options are “he” or “they.” Last year, the American Society of Linguists chose “they” as the word of the year to recognize its use as a singular pronoun. This was a controversial announcement; however, writers have been using “they” for centuries. There are many examples of this usage.

I could easily find references to cite that say “his” is the correct answer here, but there are many “rules” in English that appear in grammar books that are no longer considered valid. In fact, anyone can write a grammar book and make up any rules they like/he likes. There is no official set of grammar rules.

Since English has no official body setting grammar rules (unlike some languages), English grammarians fall into two camps: descriptive and prescriptive. Prescriptive grammarians prefer to set rules that should be followed; descriptive grammarians simply state what rules people are using to communicate.All native English speakers would understand the sentence you provided with “their” in it. There would be no ambiguity of meaning. So, I’d have to say “their” is acceptable.

Image by Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net