I want to use the following sentence: ‘each of the UK’s last 5 Prime Ministers was worse than their predecessor’. That sentence could have 2 readings:
- A distributive reading: each Prime Minster was worse than that Prime Minister’s predecessor.
- A collective reading: each Prime Minster was worse than the predecessor of the 1st in that sequence of 5 Prime Minister.
I intend the distributive meaning. One way to make that clear is to spell this out very clearly, as above, but that could produce some long-winded wording. There is a less long-winded way to be more explicit, using only pronouns: ‘each of the UK’s last 5 Prime Ministers was worse than his or her predecessor’. This can only have the distributive reading, because it uses singular pronouns.
2 meanings of ‘their’
Why did the pronoun ‘their’ cause ambiguity in this case? There are 2 ways to use and interpret this pronoun:
- as specifying number (plural) but not gender (masculine v feminine). This is the traditional use of the pronoun.
- a pronoun that specifies neither number (singular v plural) nor gender. This second reading was probably rare until the last few decades, but is becoming more and more common.
In most cases, ‘their’ conveniently avoids specifying gender in a context where specifying gender is either unnecessary or undesirable.
But occasionally, using ‘their’ may cause ambiguity, as in the case I discuss in this post. In this case, although ‘his or her’ is a little inelegant, it achieves well the objective of specifying singular (and thus a distributive meaning), while still accommodating both genders.
Other posts on inclusive language
Here are links to other posts on inclusive language: https://languagemiscellany.com/tag/inclusive-language