Our six-year-old neighbor brought his Pokémon card game over for a playdate the other night. As our daughter read aloud the instructions on a card, the grammar caught my attention. Do you notice it too?
"Your opponent puts a card from his or her hand on the bottom of his or her deck." That's just too many inelegant possessive forms.
Having taught business writing at Nintendo, the creators of Pokémon, I know how much the company values flawless writing. So it didn't surprise me that it would use that correct form. Yes, his or her is correct the way the card uses it. The singular word opponent traditionally needs a singular pronoun.
But today, that correct rendering is outdated. They and their have won out over he or she and his or her–at least in awkward sentences like that one.
Let's write it this way: "Your opponent puts a card from their hand on the bottom of their deck." Granted, if you have just one opponent–and you are a grammarian–the plural their will make you cringe. But you have to admit that it's perfectly clear–just not what you were expecting.
I had to acknowledge something I wasn't expecting in the excellent book When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. In it, Patrisse Khan-Cullors refers to her partner Future as they, and each time I read it, the singular they threw me off balance. Here's an example: "Future told me about their childhood. They have a sister who is their twin and a brother."
They threw me off balance, but it made me recognize and appreciate that gender-based pronouns don't serve everyone.
The Washington Post weighed in on this issue back in 2015: “Allowing they for a gender-nonconforming person is a no-brainer. And once we’ve done that, why not allow it for the most awkward of those he or she situations that have troubled us for so many years?” Awkward like the text on the Pokémon card.
I've reported before on where style guides stand on the singular they (Number 5 in the article). How about you? Do you use it to avoid clumsy his or her constructions? Are you now accustomed to seeing and using they for gender-nonconforming individuals? Does your company style guide address using they and their for singular pronouns? Please share your experience.