Hi teachers!

Today, I had to explain to my students the somewhat controversial issue concerning the use of "their" in place of "his" with a singular antecedent. The sentece which prompted my students' question was the following:

"The other person gives you their name - it's unpronounceable!"

After going over the explanation that this use is preferred to avoid sexist expressions, one of my students posed the following question:

What would you say in the following situation?

A: Who told you that.

B: Someone / A person I know.

A: Could you tell ______ to shut up before speaking nonsense? (Is this correct or should it be "to shut up rather than speak nonsense"?)

With which pronoun or noun phrase would you fill in the blank in the above sentence? How would you sort this out?

I suggested that if "B" was unwilling to tell the person's name, then we still don't know the gender and should follow that trend, so:

A: Could you tell that person to shut his mouth?

Is it possible to say "could you tell them to..." in this case, making reference to the unnamed person? I find it strange and unnatural. I was wondering whether the oddness of "could you tell them to..." wouldn't come from the fact that "them" here falls within a different sentence and the antecedent is in another sentence (the previous one).

Thanks a lot!

Hello Riglos

"Their" for a person of unknown sex has been used for centuries; so it doesn't necessarily relate to a desire to avoid sexist language. I think it's more a question of convenience.

In your situation, I would probably say "that person" rather than "them", for emphasis. But in other contexts, I might say "they/them":

"Apparently the Waterloo and City Line is going to be closed for refurbishment."

"Really? Who told you that?"

"Oh, someone I work with."

"I see. Did they happen to say when it would be reopening?"
Thanks MrP! That's interesting! I wouldn't have thought that would sound natural to a native!

Now, I know the reason to choose "they/them", etc. is not only (just) related to a desire to avoid sexist language but, in any case, grammatically speaking it is a question of gender, isn't it?