A Grammar Q & A: Part 3
John H. Ridge, J.D., Ph.D.
This is the third and final article in the Grammar Q_& A series that we started in the February 2019 edition of the Wyoming Lawyer. I saved the four most controversial questions for last, so I am sure that there is something in this article for just about every reader to dispute. And lastly, I added a final grammar joke (it is possible that I am a bit of a nerd).
Question No. 1: The singular "they" is starting to show up in legal documents. Is this now an accepted practice?
Answer: Normally pronouns agree with "their antecedents in gender, number, and person. For example, consider the following sentence: • Justice Scalia followed his own advice when he placed the citations in footnotes.
The pronoun "he" agrees with the antecedent "Justice Scalia" in gender (male), number (singular), and person (third-person).
A problem arises, however, when we need a gender-neutral, third-person, singular pronoun to stand in place of a singular noun of which the gender is not known, because such a pronoun does not exist in English. The following examples illustrate this problem and provide a few of the attempts writers have made to solve this issue: • Under the local rules, a lawyer must file his response within thirty days.
• Under the local rules, a lawyer must file his or her response within thirty days.
• Under the local rules, a lawyer must file their response within thirty days.
The first option uses "he" to refer to the unspecified gender of the lawyer and is considered sexist. The second option is clunky and hard to read. The third uses the third-person, plural pronoun because it applies to any person, regardless of gender. This is known as the singular "they" and it is becoming more and more accepted in non-legal writing.
But should we use it in legal writing?
While the singular "they" is gaining acceptance, it is still not an agreed upon practice in many circles. As a result, most legal writing commentators suggest writing around the problem. The...