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Proper pronoun use: bloggers, stop using “their” when you should be using “its”

One of the most common mistakes I see is when a pronoun does not agree with the noun for which it is being substituted. This problem frequently appears when writers use the pronoun “their” when they should be using “its.” (Bloggers make this error a lot).

Here’s a primer on proper pronoun use:

If you’re referring to a singular entity that isn’t a person, use “its,” not “their:”

  • Right: Starbucks is having its worst quarter ever.
  • Wrong: Starbucks is having their worst quarter ever.
  • Rationale: Starbucks is a company and, hence, a singular entity. So the pronoun standing in its place must be singular (“its”), not plural (“their”).

If you’re referring to plural entities, person or not, use “their.”

  • Right: The administration and Congress are confused about their priorities.
  • Wrong: The administration and Congress are confused about its priorities.
  • Rationale: The administration and Congress are two separate entities. Hence a plural pronoun is used.

If the noun is singular, but you are unsure about its gender, use both genders of the singular pronoun—do not use “their.”

  • Right: Everyone loves his or her iPhone.
  • Wrong: Everyone loves their iPhone.
  • Rationale: Everyone is singular. If that concept seems strange, keep in mind that the word ends with “one.” Hence the pronoun that represents “everyone” must be singular. “Their” is always plural; it cannot be used to substitute for a singular pronoun just because you are referring to both genders.

If a noun refers to people of a specific gender, have the pronoun reflect that information. Do not use “his or her” just to be politically correct.

  • Right: My boss skipped my presentation on grammar so she could eat her lunch.
  • Wrong: My boss skipped my presentation on grammar so he or she could eat his or her lunch.
  • Rationale: At its most basic level, the purpose of writing is to share information. So if you know your boss’s gender (and hopefully you do), use the appropriate pronoun. I’ve seen many writers use “his or her” when the gender of the person to whom they are referring should be obvious. Being politically correct is fine. but not at the expense of being right. (And if my adding an “s” after the apostrophe in “boss’s” confuses you, check out my post about the plural, possessive, and the plural possessive).

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8 Responses to Proper pronoun use: bloggers, stop using “their” when you should be using “its”

  1. luckydad June 26, 2007 at 1:02 am #

    Hi Zach-

    You write:

    “Here’s a primer on proper pronoun us:”

    I think you meant:

    “Here’s a primer on proper pronoun use:”

    1. Did you do that on purpose to see if anyone would catch it?
    2. If you did do it on purpose, it would have been more fun to use this typo:

    “Here’s a primer on proper pronoun pus:”

    🙂

    -Michael
    “A lot of alliteration from anxious anchors placed in powerful posts!”

  2. Zach Everson June 26, 2007 at 12:19 pm #

    Good catch Michael–thanks! I think I’m going to add a disclaimer to the top of the page saying that from now on all typos are simply attempts to help my readers become better editors.

  3. tom August 30, 2007 at 5:12 pm #

    Nice.

  4. Anne Whiteway December 4, 2007 at 8:59 am #

    When I hear someone say “hisself” instead of “himself” it really bothers me.
    In fact, it sounds ignorant to me.
    Am I being too critical?

    I hear people say “hisself” who have (otherwise) fairly good English skills.

    Is it ever appropriate to correct another adult’s grammar or pronunciation without being asked?

  5. Zach Everson December 5, 2007 at 11:47 am #

    You’re not too critical. My dictionary defines “hisself” as “nonstandard spelling of himself, used in representing informal or dialect speech.” I only use the word when it seems humorous to do so.

    As for correcting someone’s grammar, it depends on the situation. I never correct someone in front of others, only do it to people with whom I have a good relationship, and only do it if the error is egregious and repeated. Proper grammar is not worth hurt feelings.

  6. k March 20, 2017 at 5:37 pm #

    worse? (in the same sentence) Don’t you mean “worst?

  7. k March 20, 2017 at 5:37 pm #

    *sample sentence

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