I'm reading the following paragraph and puzzled by "substituted for other tenses." What does it mean in relation to the particular example in quotation marks?

As a workaround, some writers have begun using the plural pronoun their as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. For example: "Every student must turn in their homework." However, this approach becomes problematic when the plural pronoun they is used in the singular form and substituted for other tenses, which results in faulty syntax such as: “Tell that worker they must be careful on the roof.”

  • The answer to your first question is probably that it's a mistake (but maybe someone else can decipher what the author's trying to say, which is why I won't post an answer); and to the second: they can be interpreted as the plural and as the singular (i.e., "Tell the worker they (workers or the people on the roof) must be careful on the roof." and "...they (the worker) must be careful...").
    – user3395
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 15:08

1 Answer 1


"Substituted for other tenses" sounds odd, but I guess the writer means that you use the plural tense of the verb for what is supposed to be a singular object:

Each student knows they must submit their own homework.

"Each student" is singular, but we have to conjugate the verb "submit" to match "they", which the writer feels is plural. Actually, the writer is mistaken and the singular "they" is legitimate grammar.

It's also a dumb example. Presumably you can see the worker and guess at gender, or, if you really can't tell (it happens), you can more concisely say

Tell that worker to be more careful on the roof

and avoid picking a gendered pronoun. If talking in general about the workers, use the plural:

Tell the workers that they should be more careful on the roof

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