“Their” Used As a Singular Pronoun … in Contracts?

The corner of Twitter that’s interested in English usage has recently been all aflutter over that popular topic, they used as a singular pronoun, as in “If a patron doesn’t like the opera, they are free to leave.” It seems to have been sparked by this Wall Street Journal article by @bgzimmer. The article suggests that copy editors are increasingly willing to accept this usage.

I suspected that this issue would soon come knocking on my door. Sure enough, I then saw the following tweets by @NealGoldfarb:

In my general writing I’ve long used they as a personal pronoun. Would I use it in contracts? Not at the moment, and for the same reason that I don’t use contractions in contracts. (On that subject, see this 2008 post.) It’s not a matter of right or wrong, more a matter of tone: contract language is  limited and stylized, so I find it a bit dissonant to introduce in contracts the most informal usages of general writing.

In this context, I would use his/her/its. Joking! My default is actually to use that party’s.

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.

4 thoughts on ““Their” Used As a Singular Pronoun … in Contracts?”

  1. ‘Not at the moment’?

    Stand fast, Ken!

    I haven’t seen an instance where ‘their’ is the best solution in a contract.

    As you say, ‘Each party shall pay that party’s own expenses’ is a clear and preferable solution.

    The tiny awkwardness is far less than that of ‘their’.

    Before I would use ‘their’ as a singular, I’d put in an interpretive rule (language of policy) along these lines: ‘He, him, and his are used inclusively, and refer to masculine, feminine, and neuter’. Fourteen words; problem gone.

    If it would save grief, I would make the rule say, ‘She, her, and hers are used inclusively to refer to masculine, feminine, and neuter.’ Then I’d use the feminine forms throughout the contract. Still beats ‘their’, ‘they’, ‘them’, and ‘theirs’ as singulars.

    Don’t let this discussion get entangled with the separate issue of whether collective nouns that are singular in form take plural verbs and adjectives.

    In the U.K. sometimes a work crew treat their tea break as sacred, whilst in the U.S. that work crew treats its coffee break as sacred.

  2. How would you reword “If Partner must stay abroad to fulfil their contractual obligations arising from this collaboration, they shall take out travel and personal insurance for themselves and for any persons they bring along”?

    • In MSCD4 I accept using their as a singular pronoun for humanoids, but it’s still kind of clunky. So you could leave your sentence as is or you could eliminate pronouns by saying If required to travel outside the United States when performing services under this agreement, the Partner shall obtain travel and life insurance for Partner and any companions. (Incidentally, what do “stay”, “abroad”, and “personal insurance” mean?)

      • I must admit that I am a translator. “Abroad” here means “outside Germany,” “stay” means the trip will involve at least one overnight stay (not just travelling across the border and back), and “personal insurance” (Personenversicherung) means “insurance that covers personal risks.” This includes life, health, and accident insurance.

        I am also really benefitting from studying MSCD3.


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