• An otter can close its ears and nose.
  • An otter can close their ears and nose.

What is the difference? I think they are same and what is the correct answer?

  • 4
    "Their" is, in context, plural. Otters can close their ears and nose.
    – puppetsock
    Apr 26, 2021 at 13:55
  • 2
    An otter is singular, the pronoun is its. Third person they is only for humans: Every child should bring their jacket. – An otter can close its ear and nose. Otters can close their ears and noses.
    – Lambie
    Apr 26, 2021 at 14:11
  • @puppetsock *noses
    – wjandrea
    Apr 27, 2021 at 0:45

2 Answers 2

  • An otter can close its ears and nose. - Correct
  • An otter can close their ears and nose. - Incorrect

Their is used for plurals (normally). If you wanted to speak about otters as a species, then you could use otters/their as in:

  • Otters can close their ears and nose.
  • 1
    It should be "Otters can close their ears and noses."
    – wjandrea
    Apr 27, 2021 at 0:47
  • 3
    @wjandrea It's not that black and white: English does very little to help disambiguate distributive plurals from distributive singulars. To that extent, "nose" or "noses" are both within the spectrum of acceptability (although "nose" sounds more natural to my ear).
    – Chris Down
    Apr 27, 2021 at 1:47
  • While it's applied less to animals than to humans, singular they has been in English for half a millennium, and is gaining in popularity.  So I don't think there's justification for calling the ‘they’ option incorrect — just less common (so far).
    – gidds
    Apr 28, 2021 at 1:14

TL;DR: If this is for a test, the correct answer is probably (as others have said) to use its. Otherwise, read on.

Speaking as someone who uses “singular they” regularly, I'd understand either of those sentences perfectly, and I probably wouldn't think too hard about saying either. There is a continuum from people to animals to objects, and it's a gray area where “singular they” is appropriate — different speakers will draw the line in different places.

To answer your question of what the difference is, in a broad sense the two sentences mean the same thing. As I've mentioned, this phenomenon is called “singular they,” where we use the pronouns they, them, and their — which are normally third-personal plural pronouns — as third-person singular pronouns in the case where the speaker does not know the gender or preferred pronouns of the referred person. This is often done for people, who (being sapient) may have an unknown preference. By using their in your second sentence, you may slightly personify the otter (attribute human characteristics to it, such as gender). You wouldn't be saying the otter is a person, but maybe more person-like than a rock.

Where a speaker draws the line on using “singular they” will depend on how much they personify animals. In English, we pretty much never use it to refer to a person (it would be dehumanizing). So someone who personifies dogs may feel uncomfortable using it to refer to a dog and may prefer to use they. Some people may use they to refer to any animal.

As I said above, if this is for a test, the correct answer is almost certainly to use its. That's the most conservative choice (in the linguistic sense, not necessarily political conservativism). “Singular they” has been around for a long time, but it's only recently becoming accepted. If you're asking because this came up in conversation, I think the current state of English is too volatile say one is right or wrong.

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