Collective and distributive readings of ‘their’

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

2 comments

  1. The traditional “his” evolved into “their” in response to views on gender discrimination. But lately there seem to be some strongly held views that gender is not binary. “Their” seems to accommodate the non-binary view. However, your proposal of “his or her” does not. Plus, as you point out, it’s somewhat inelegant – particularly in spoken English.
    If one accepts the neutrality of “their”, may I propose another way to achieve the distributive reading you want, while avoiding both the non-binary problem and the inelegance. Simply insert the word “immediate” before “predecessor” so that the sentence reads:
    “Each of the UK’s last five Prime Ministers was worse than their immediate predecessor.”

    1. Thanks, I’d overlooked the non-binary view.
      I too had considered ‘immediate’, but I don’t think it does enough to force the distribute reading. Your sentence doesn’t say clearly that it is the immediate predecessor of each one, rather than the immediate predecessor of the line of 5.

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