The plural solution is often an easy way to turn a faulty sentence into a better one.
In this sentence (from a novel) the fault is the non-agreement of the noun and the possessive adjective that refers to it:
In a lot of murder cases, it transpired that the victim knew their attacker.
How would you fix it?
Here’s the fault: ‘the victim’ is a singular noun; the possessive adjective that qualifies ‘attacker’ should also be singular to agree with ‘the victim’.
Technically, the sentence should say ‘his attacker’ or ‘her attacker’. The word ‘their‘ is a plural form of possessive adjective and grammatically incorrect.
A writer might not want to specify gender, which is fair enough.
The problem, though, is that the English language has only one singular possessive adjective that doesn’t suggest gender and the word is ‘its‘.
We can talk about ‘a cat and its prey’ but we don’t use that word when we’re talking about people.
The gender-neutral problem can’t be solved by using ‘their’; even though some claim it’s the way to go, it isn’t grammatically correct and sounds clumsy. Some might use ‘his/her’ but that’s cumbersome.
There are other ways.
A simple plural solution
Often, the easiest solution is to use the plural consistently in the sentence:
In a lot of murder cases, it transpired that victims knew their attackers.
There are two reasons why it works better:
- It’s simple and grammatically correct
- It’s also more logical: the sentence itself suggests that using the plural makes more sense.
‘In a lot of murder cases’ (also plural), there are, presumably, many ‘victims’; after all, the victim can’t be murdered more than once.
Remove the possessive (and the personal)
Another solution is to remove the possessive adjective completely and replace it with ‘the’:
In a lot of murder cases, it transpired that the victim knew the attacker.
There are two reasons why this works well, too:
- The sentence uses the singular to make a general statement, which makes sense if we’re talking about a number (a lot) of cases
- It’s also a good solution because it removes the personal and avoids what might sound like an insensitive linking of a victim with a criminal.
Many people object to language that implies ownership or connection with something they want no association with, even grammatically.
They might, for example, resent phrases such as ‘his killer’, ‘her attacker’ or ‘my rapist’.
Thoughts about gender-specific words
Admittedly, there are times when it’s difficult to use the solutions above. Attempts to use gender neutral terms shouldn’t have to lead to grammatical errors, though.
Perhaps the English language needs some new, inclusive singular pronouns and possessive adjectives, as alternatives to ‘he’, ‘she’ ‘his’ and ‘her’.
Here are some extra writing tips for Better Communication.