David E asked in Society & CultureLanguages · 8 years ago

Who can decide that "them" can be used to replace a singular noun?

More and more people use them to replace a singular noun. An example might be: "If your child misbehaves on the band trip, you will have to drive to Dallas to pick them up." The writer is technically wrong. "He" should have been used instead of "them". The writer probably felt that it would be incorrect to use "he" since many of the band members are female. I see this mistake being made often and I suspect that eventually it will be done so often that it will be considered proper usage. That seems like a rather messy process. Can anyone just make a decision now?

1 Answer

  • 8 years ago
    Favorite Answer

    I would never do this in North American English. "If your child misbehaves, you will have to pick him up--or her." "No student may keep food in his or her desk."

    I would, however, find it perfectly acceptable to use "them" or "their" in the singular in British English, where it is a well-established custom that has been documented as early as 1525! It takes advantage of the fact that in the Germanic languages, gender differences do not apply in the plural, so, by using a plural for what is logically singular we can avoid the clumsiness of "him and her" or "his or hers".

    Source(s): A lifelong interest in historical grammar and in Anglo-American differences (in part because I write for publication on both sides of the Atlantic).
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