From stuff.co.nz this morning:
The official who let the Malaysian Government believe New Zealand was comfortable with a diplomat accused of attempted rape going home, should consider their career options, the prime minister says.
I get pissed off when people incorrectly use the plural ‘their’ to substitute for the singular ‘him’ or ‘her’. For some reason they think gender-specific pronouns are sexist and objectionable. These mealy-mouthed people are usually in the public sector, though in this case the perpetrator seems to have been a journalist who should have known better.
If the writer hadn’t wanted to specify gender, what would have been wrong with ‘his or her’?
In this instance it was a her. Why not say that?
The English language needs a gender-neutral singular third person pronoun, but their ain’t the answer.
Some publications now insist on ‘their’ as non-geneder specific editorial style. I’m not sure about Stuff, but I had a lecture from a sub-editor about using the term instead of his or her in the last year. Apparently I’m ‘old and out of touch’.
I don’t have a problem with using non gender-specific language if you don’t know which gender it is, but in this case, the plural word ‘their’ looks stupid because it’s standing in for ‘The official’. Sure, ‘his or her’ would be a mouthful, but it would be less grating to me than a plural masquerading as a singular.
I can’t get exercised about their in this case, but there’s another problem with this sentence. If it’s to have a comma after home, it also needs a comma after official. And if that’s an intro, it’s already too long. But appreciate this copy likely came through in multiple takes as live snaps and was edited and published under the breaking news pressure – the permanent rolling deadline of now. It won’t have been through several pairs of hands polishing it as in a newspaper workflow of old (reporter, chief reporter, news editor, copy sub, layout sub, check sub). There is unlikely to be any agenda or even a style edict behind the use of their. That said, I would support using their if the gender wasn’t known. We do need a gender non-specific pronoun and one just being invented and adopted by all is as likely as Esperanto becoming the new international language. So their it is.