Native speakers usually speak instinctively, repeating things they’ve heard hundreds of times before without thinking about grammar rules.
“Someone’s left their bag here,” sounds pretty clear to a native speaker, but an English learner would ask: “Why did you say their bag, if you’re only talking about one person?”
That’s a good question! Traditionally, English, like German, used the masculine forms when talking about an unidentified person:
- Someone has left his bag here.
- Jemand hat seine Tasche hier vergessen.
That was until political correctness became an issue. Whereas German continued to use the masculine forms without any complaints, the English-speaking world looked for a more politically correct alternative. They had two choices:
The first was to use both the masculine and feminine pronouns:
- Someone has left his or her bag here.
This became extremely complicated, though:
- Someone has left his or her bag here, but I’m sure he or she will come back, so we can give it back to him or her later.
The other choice was to use the third person plural forms like they, them and their:
- Someone has left their bag here, but I’m sure they will come back, so we can give it back to them later.
This seemed to be the perfect solution; it’s short and politically correct – even though it’s a little confusing at first for non-native speakers.
You’ll often see this used with someone/somebody, anyone/anybody, no one/nobody, everyone/everybody and with non-gender-specific people words such as person, doctor or player:
- Has everybody turned their phone off?
- We need to find the person and tell them.
- A player can decide when they want to begin.
As always, once you’re aware of something in a language, you’ll start to recognise it more and more often. After a while, you’ll start using it yourself and, before you know it, you’ll begin to use it without thinking – just like a native speaker!
Do you have any questions? Let me know in the comments section below!