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The union insisted on an increase in their members’ starting pay, and threatened to call a strike if the company refused to meet the demand.

It is from an SAT Grammar Test. The right decision is to change their to its.

But if instead of "the union" there were "the person" or "the politician" I think you could leave their untouched. Why it is not correct for "the union"? Maybe because with "the person" or "the politician" you use their to avoid sexism (you don't know whether it is 'his' or 'her'), but with "it" there is no such problem, so it should be strictly "its"?

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  • The SAT Grammar Test is U.S. based, and in the U.S., we do not refer to entities like "the committee", "the government", "the union", "Acme Corporation", and so forth with "they". I would be interested in hearing whether this sentence is grammatical in the U.K. Apr 23, 2014 at 2:27
  • @PeterShor: What about the police?
    – mosceo
    Apr 23, 2014 at 2:42
  • The police is a plural noun, so you have to use they; unfortunately, exactly what "and so forth" in my above comment means isn't completely clear, and there's probably no easy way to make it so. Apr 23, 2014 at 2:48

3 Answers 3

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As it appears it looks like it's another problem of collective noun.

Collective Noun - a noun, as herd, jury, or clergy, that appears singular in formal shape but denotes a group of persons or objects.

Collective nouns are usually used with singular verbs: the family is on holiday ; General Motors is mounting a big sales campaign . In British usage, however, plural verbs are sometimes employed in this context, esp when reference is being made to a collection of individual objects or people rather than to the group as a unit: the family are all on holiday . Care should be taken that the same collective noun is not treated as both singular and plural in the same sentence: the family is well and sends its best wishes or the family are all well and send their best wishes, but not the family is well and send their best wishes

Source - Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition

The unit as a whole, when all members are working the same thing as a unit we generally use singular verb and singular pronoun. When the members acts individually we use plural verb and plural pronoun. It depends on the context also.

Example -

  1. Every afternoon the baseball team follows its coach out to the hot field for practice. (The baseball team as a unit and all the members are doing the same thing at the same time)

  2. After the long exam, the class start their research papers on famous mathematicians. (The class is a unit. But all start the research paper, but they don't start the research paper on the same mathematician, instead they do it on different mathematicians)

Now coming to your sentence -

The union insisted on an increase in their members’ starting pay, and threatened to call a strike if the company refused to meet the demand.

This sentence doesn't specifically say anything about the union as a collective noun. So there is no chance of knowing whether they all are working as a group at the same time, or the members of the union are acting individually. And so I think whether to use singular or plural verb/pronoun is optional. I mean to say you can use eith singular verb/pronoun or plural verb/pronoun here.

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  • It is an interesting observation, to pay attention if the members of a group act in the same directions or not.
    – mosceo
    Apr 23, 2014 at 21:00
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Just as you would say "he or she", you would say "his or her". "Their" is used for when the subject of "their" is plural.

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  • My mistake; suppose instead of "he" or "she" I say "the person" and now if I say "his/her" I reveal the sex of the person, which I might not know. In this case I think I can use "their".
    – mosceo
    Apr 23, 2014 at 2:47
  • That's a long way from being an absolute truth. Singular they has a long history in English and is widely used, although it remains controversial. Apr 23, 2014 at 8:50
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So, for your original question, as I think you understand, you should use "it" to refer to a singular thing ("its" for the possessive).

For a person, it gets a little more complicated.

For someone male/masculine, use "his."

The politician wanted his car to be polished.

For someone female/feminine, use "her."

The politician wanted her car to be polished.

But what if we don't know the sex/gender? To be honest, this is a problem without a perfect solution, at least at this point in time. As far as I know, there are three choices.

(1) Use "his."

The politician wanted his car to be polished.

This is/has been very common and is probably the most elegant choice, but lately people seem to think that it sounds sexist (that it excludes women or anyone who would normally use "she"/"her").

(2) Use "his or her." (People also use "his/her," along with "he or she," "he/she," "s/he," and "(s)he" in different situations.)

The politician wanted his or her car to be polished.

This choice is more explicitly inclusive. It's also nice because it informs your reader that you don't know the sex/gender (or that it doesn't matter). It is a bit clunkier, though. This is, as far as I can tell, the current formal way to deal with this situation.

(3) Use "their."

The politician wanted their car to be polished.

This is what you were asking about. You have probably heard people say things like this, and it might sound normal to you. People disagree about whether this is good English. On one hand, it's easier than saying "his or her" every time. On the other hand, some people think that it's sort of a corruption, because you're taking "their," which is usually used with plurals ("The politicians wanted their cars to be polished.") and using it with singulars. Therefore, many people think that this is bad formal English; on the SAT, for example, which usually tests formal English, it would probably be considered wrong.

However, the singular "their" (along with "they" and "them," of course) is incredibly and increasingly common. I don't think anybody would have a hard time understanding you if you used "their" to refer to "the politician" (singular). It should be perfectly fine in "informal" English.

As you can see, there is not a single answer to your question. People actively debate about which one is better. (Some people have actually tried to invent some new pronouns instead of just using "they/them/their," but these are very uncommon.)

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