Real Words that Work - When is one more than one? 

By Patricia Davies, President, Patricia Davies Communications

When is one more than one?

I was startled when I read this headline in a Telus ad: “Reward the grad in your life for all their hard work.” 

Somehow the singular “grad” and the plural “their” had slid past all the eyes necessary to approve a major ad campaign. Or had the approvers decided the construction was right?  It is a perfect example of the confusion that has erupted since the English-speaking world decided that “his” was not the default to describe whoever had done the hard work.  The midnight oil-burner could just as easily be a “her”. All we know for sure is that it is one person, not a “their.”


After a little research I was surprised to learn that “their” is acceptable (apparently Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen combined singulars and plurals freely). However, most people would swear on their dictionaries that it is wrong. 

Respected authorities, including The Chicago Manual of Style advise rewording the sentence to avoid the thorny issue. Only at last resort use the awkward his/her. Be prepared for criticism if you decide to keep “their,” even though it is technically correct. Most people will think you don’t know the rules. 


The hard-working grad in your life deserves a reward. 
Your hard-working grad deserves a reward. 

Patricia Davies is an award-winning writer and editor, an Endorsed Education Provider (EEP) with IIBA®, and a regular panelist on the IIBA “Being a BA: Effective Communication: Webinar (first Tuesday of every month). Have you got a writing question? Please email to and we’ll try to address it in a future column or Webinar.