Debate has arisen over whether the plural their is an acceptable pronoun for referring back to a singular subject, as in this example:
Each hairdresser should bring their own supplies.
Here’s my preferred option:
Each hairdresser should bring his or her own supplies.
This one is even better:
All hairdressers should bring their own supplies.
Those who don’t scruple over the disagreement between a singular antecedent and a plural pronoun imply that those who do are over-scrupulous. Steven Pinker, author of books with such modest titles as How the Mind Works and, more recently and to the point, The Sense of Style: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, argues that, if even Shakespeare sometimes commits errors of agreement in number, the their in the sentence above is no big deal. (I can’t resist pointing out that the title of Pinker’s book on style is faintly bullying. It begins with “the,” as if only one sense of style exists, rather than “a,” a word choice that would allow for the existence of more than one good sense of style. Furthermore, the title indicates that any “thinking person” would subscribe to the single sense of style he outlines. If you disagree with him, you must not be thinking. An ironic side note: on Amazon, the apostrophe in “Person’s” is omitted, raising suspicion about the very claim to thinking.)
I disagree with Pinker’s position for a number of reasons, including that, if someone pointed out Shakespeare’s occasional lapses in agreement to the author himself, he would probably revise. For another thing, mixing singulars and plurals can simply be difficult to comprehend immediately, so that the reader has to re-read a few times to see what he or she (versus they) may have missed. For still another thing, I believe the use of they and their as singular pronouns is an unnecessarily awkward way of avoiding using he or she in many situations. It’s not worth the cost in elegance.
Even if he or she will do just fine, I understand the desire to skirt such phrasing—it’s cumbersome and isn’t pleasing. But alternatives exist! The best one is often to make the antecedent plural, as in the following case (and one of the cases above at the beginning of this post):
Sometimes a reader has to make up his or her own mind.
Sometimes readers have to make up their own minds.
In situations where he or she and him or her frequently recurs, another option is to use one or the other in alternation. One time the writer can use she; the next time, he. You might think this approach wouldn’t work well, but it does—I’ve heard it used successfully even in a speech. Consider this example:
Every morning, a member of the group makes her favorite breakfast, and every evening another member makes his preferred supper.
Such alternatives to mixing singulars and plurals require just a little thinking.