Assuming that you think "singular they" is an ok construction in english (e.g. "Some person will lose their keys" - article: http://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/dictionary/dos-and-donts-for-singular-they/ ):

Is it ok if a string like this appears in a computer program:

"Catherine has lost their access to the system"

...or does it look too weird and wrong? The background for this is that "Catherine" is a user name in a database, and the program has no information regarding gender, so making the correct choice between "his" and "hers" isn't possible.

If this doesn't work, are there any suggestions for a construction that works around this issue? Would "Catherine has lost his or her access to the system" look better? What if the user name can be a group of people, like "Liverpool FC has lost his or her access to the system?"

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    Maybe english.stackexchange.com is the better place for this question :-) Jul 16, 2013 at 9:09
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    I was thinking I might post there, but the question is very specific to computer programs. I feel that when gender is obvious as in my first example, the english is simply wrong, but maybe we get some understanding or leeway from the user when doing this in a computer application?
    – TV's Frank
    Jul 16, 2013 at 9:14
  • It can also apply to other spoken languages that have gender neutral pronouns.
    – TV's Frank
    Jul 16, 2013 at 9:16
  • Yes, true. Anyway it's a very interesting question, looking forward to some insightful answers. Jul 16, 2013 at 9:23
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    Facebook uses "their" rather than he/she if you keep your gender private. I think it's become more acceptable. Also, in your example, you can drop 'their' as the possessive is implicit.
    – Brendon
    Jul 16, 2013 at 20:31

1 Answer 1


You might want to avoid it altogether, because you're actually right that singular they works in many occasions but not here. It is correct but looks weird, that is. How about:

"User X has lost access to the system".

If you necessarily have to use something (though I cannot imagine why you'd have to) starting with "User X" makes it more neutral. It's not about a physical person or an organisation any more, it's about a genderless account. It might work here to have "User 'Catherine' has lost access to their system".

Bear in mind that this solution is less friendly than addressing the user personally. It depends what you want to do, if an admin watches who has lost access it's OK to refer to a any user, if you notify the actual person you might want to address them personally, it's nicer.

  • Cool! My specific issue deals with notifying about other users. The "User '...'" version looks nice.
    – TV's Frank
    Jul 16, 2013 at 9:57
  • And thanks for pointing out that you can avoid pronouns altogether here - I'm not a native english speaker in case that wasn't blatantly obvious.
    – TV's Frank
    Jul 16, 2013 at 10:02
  • You probably don't need the awkward "User 'Catherine' has..." construction, just go with "Catherine has..." Jul 16, 2013 at 17:11
  • @AlexFeinman Sure, that would work really well if the account was always for a person, not a bad idea at all. However, if it is for an organisation you would have to use "OrgX have…" (some say "has" also for orgs but, hey!, universal design!), and in the question the OP mentions an example with an organisation (Liverpool FC) so I assumed it's not always an individual associated with the account.
    – ekapros
    Jul 16, 2013 at 17:22
  • @ekapros Mmm, we're running into the variations between USA English vs. UK English. "Liverpool FC has..." is typical in USA English, but the UK would say "Liverpool FC have...". Jul 17, 2013 at 13:09

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