Overall, there was an increase in female fitness membership throughout the period examined, while the opposite was true for their/its male counterparts.

Should it be their or its here? I think since I'm comparing the memberships, its should be better because it's the main noun. However, their sounds better to my ears. I'm not sure though. Hope you all can clear this up for me.

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  • 3
    Imho, its sounds silly. But you might consider sidestepping the issue with ...the opposite was true for the male counterparts. Or don't bother with a determiner at all - ...was true for male counterparts seems fine to me - and in fact that's become the dominant form over recent decades. Commented Mar 23 at 19:50
  • an increase in female fitness membership = a non-starter This is a find and correct question: the fitness of female members. Now, do it.
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 23 at 20:42
  • 1
    For IELTS: "Female fitness membership" should be paraphrased, merely copying the expression may suggest that you either do not understand the meaning or you are unable to say it in a different way. It could be as simple as "Overall the number of women joining fitness clubs… whereas the number of men…” Also, the number of women members in 2015 decreased by almost a third so your summary is not accurate and you will lose marks for this in a test.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 24 at 10:12
  • 1
    "Overall" is a general view point, it doesn't matter when someone joined or renewed their membership because the chart lists the number of members in five year intervals.E.g In 2015 the number of female fitness members in Thailand was lower compared to 2005 and 2010. It's OK to use the exam question phrase once as long as you don't continually use it. In your shoes I'd be tempted to use "women/men gym members" but we don't know if "fitness membership“ includes sport clubs.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 25 at 9:26
  • 1
    I mean that the phrase: "female fitness membership" is not the best you can find. Because that would mean: fitness is a member. We'd say: The number of females with a fitness membership or the number of female members. I assume a reader will already know the membership is for a fitness establishment.
    – Lambie
    Commented Mar 25 at 12:55

3 Answers 3


To be strictly correct here, it isn't just a case of choosing one pronoun or the other. The whole thing needs a rewrite.

When you compare two things, they must be comparable. You can certainly compare the results from men with the results from women. But when you use pronouns like 'their' or 'its', these always point back to something you have previously mentioned. Therefore the pronoun must be part of a comparable phrase. In other words, you ought to be able to replace whichever pronoun you choose with the entire thing it refers to and the sentence still make sense.

The problem is, you haven't mentioned any females in your text. You've used the word 'female' as an adjective to describe the noun 'membership', which you are using as an uncountable noun (ie you haven't used the plural 'memberships'). It is therefore incorrect when you refer to "male counterparts" in the plural.

You could instead say:

Overall, there was an increase in female fitness membership throughout the period examined, while the opposite was true of male membership.


You are comparing women with men. Read the context again. You are not comparing "a membership" nor even "memberships", but the behaviour of women compared to their male counterparts.

So the pronoun should be plural: "their".

  • @FumbleFingers said that we could even remove the pronoun here. Do you agree? Commented Mar 25 at 4:00
  • 1
    Yes, but I think it is better with the determiner.
    – James K
    Commented Mar 25 at 5:53
  • What about Tim's opinion? This is a typical case where native speakers give me different advice, so it's kinda hard to choose which way to go. Commented Mar 25 at 6:33
  • 1
    @anIELTSLearner This is a case where the grammatical and the semantic are at odds, and there's no real way to avoid infelicity when you start with "female membership". There may also be transatlantic dialect differences here, since Brits say "The company are" and Americans say "The company is". James speaks BrE and may more readily use "their" of "female membership" than I would as I speak AmE.
    – TimR
    Commented Mar 25 at 15:57

One could ask a fitness company "How large is your female membership?" Even though membership is an abstraction and doesn't have a gender, the question would be understood to mean "How many women have memberships?" or "What percentage of your membership is women?"

There was an increase in female membership in period and a decrease in male membership.

Trying to express this with its or their counterparts is wrongheaded. Neither is correct.

If membership is the noun, it would be counterpart in the singular:

There was an increase in female membership in period and a decrease in its male counterpart.

But why ask the question in such a wooden manner merely to avoid saying the word membership twice?

  • As a test taker, I don't always have enough time to come up with the best expression. So a word like "counterpart" is great for me because I can use it in a lot of different essays, hence the need to learn how to use it properly. With regard to why I feel like I should avoid saying membership twice, I think Mari-Lou A's comment above explains it. Commented Mar 25 at 4:05
  • Your suggestion to use "counterparts" does not address Mari-LouA's concern in any way.
    – TimR
    Commented Mar 25 at 11:38

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