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Egwene hung on to a smooth face with an effort. There was no real hope of ships to block the harbor, though none of them knew that. Gareth had made it plain enough to her, however, long before leaving Murandy. Originally, he had hoped to buy vessels while they marched north along the Erinin, using them to ferry supplies until they reached Tar Valon, then sinking them in the harbor mouths. Using gateways to reach Tar Valon had put paid to that in more ways than one. Word of the siege had left the city with the first ships sailing after the army arrived, and now, as far north and south as he had sent riders, ship captains were carrying out their business ashore by boat, from anchorages well out in the river. No captain was willing to risk the chance her ship would simply be seized. Gareth made his reports only to her, and his officers only to him, yet any sister could have known if she talked with a few soldiers.

The Wheel of Time: Book Ten - Crossroads of Twilight (Chapter 17 - Secrets)

There are two mentions of captains in the above excerpt.

  1. Word of the siege had left the city with the first ships sailing after the army arrived, and now, as far north and south as he had sent riders, ship captains were carrying out their business ashore by boat, from anchorages well out in the river.
  2. No captain was willing to risk the chance her ship would simply be seized.

Why is their used in the first sentence and then later her is used in almost similar phrase. The group of captains should be referred to by using their in my opinion. Is the usage of her somehow related to ship being used as a feminine term?

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    A little Googling suggests that boat captains in at least this part of the series' universe are women. I think this is off-topic as a nonce usage peculiar to this fictional world. – StoneyB Nov 10 '13 at 22:37
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    @StoneyB, I think OP's confusion is about "their" being used in one sentence while "her" is used in another. I think there is a definite opening for a better answer than has been posted so far, explaining why "no X" is considered singular. – The Photon Nov 11 '13 at 0:45
  • @StoneyB No. Women being ship captains is only for Atha'an Mieres', but the other countries (like Illian and Ebou Dar) still have male captains. – hjpotter92 Nov 11 '13 at 7:07
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ship captains were carrying out their business ashore by boat,

Here the antecedant is "captains", plural, so "their" is the appropriate pronoun to refer to them.

No captain was willing to risk the chance her ship would simply be seized.

Here the antecedant is "captain", singular. If the captains being discussed are all women, then "her" is the appropriate possesive pronoun.

If the captains aren't all women, things get more complicated.

Traditionally, "he" would be used as the pronoun when its not certain what is the gender of the antecedant, and I would expect that to be the most common convention in fantasy books even today. However in casual usage, "they" is used as a singular pronoun for an uncertain gender. This usage is also becoming very common in many written contexts, but obviously isn't what the author chose in your example.

In some styles of writing you might see things like "he" and "she" being used alternately (for every other pronoun) when the gender isn't known. But I wouldn't expect this in your example because this usage is rare outside specific contexts (mainly cases where lack of gender bias is considered especially important).

  • The choice of "her" for the singular is probably due to that being the usual gender for captains in this pocket of a fictional universe. However, it could also be due to the narrator being female; it can be natural for us to assume that other people in the same situation as we are, are also the same gender. – Martha Nov 11 '13 at 0:32
  • @Martha, I was going to say "if the captains being discussed are are all (or mostly) women..." but I have never heard of a grammatical "rule" that would support that usage, nor noticed it in practice. – The Photon Nov 11 '13 at 0:42
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As The Photon mentions, when the pronoun is plural, use they/their, when the pronoun is singular and male use he/his and when the pronoun is singular and female use she/her, or when it has no gender (with some exceptions), it/it's. For instance:

Captain David and his crew.

Captain Jane and her crew.

The two captains and their crew.

When the singular is used and the gender of the object (especially a person) is not known, things get complicated quickly.

If we follow the etymology backwards, the "correct" pronoun is actually he, because he and his are originally gender neutral, and only recently have become overtly masculine pronouns. For this reason, he/his have always been the preferred way to refer to singular objects whose gender is not known.

The captain and his crew

In very recent years, especially during the 1970s this started to become controversial due to a (etymologically unsound) perception that this was sexist, leading to some authors looking to alternatives to avoid controversy, including adopting the plural pronoun their:

The captain and their crew

This was controversial at the time for "breaking the rules", because "their" does not normally go with singular objects, and there are many people even now who consider it to be bad form, and it is forbidden by many writing style guides.

A more acceptable alternative was for authors to hedge their bets and put both pronouns:

The captain and his or her crew

Or just using the female pronoun exclusively to avoid clumsy alternatives.

The captain and her crew

Using the female pronoun exclusively reached a height in the 1970s and is much less popular since:

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But his or her has remained popular ever since - so you should probably use this form in your own writing, although the male pronoun is not wrong.

enter image description here

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