English as a Second Language/English grammar

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Question
Every person is a prisoner of THEIR own thoughts. Dear sir, Is my having used 'THEIR' in the above sentence right?. Is their any other word that can take its place? Thank you in advance.

Answer
Hi Buddhi!

Thanks for the question.  This is a fairly common question I get from non-native speakers because, intuitively, it seems wrong!  "Every person" is a singular noun, but "their" is a plural pronoun!  It's a great question.

Technically speaking, it is actually INcorrect!  The correct pronoun usage would be "his or her" (Every person is a prisoner of his or her own thoughts).

However, colloquially, it is correct.  It takes a little longer to say "his or her" than "their", so over time, "their" became a more natural way to convey "the person could be either a male or female, I don't know which".  So nowadays most native English speakers will use "they", "them", or "their" to refer to a singular noun whose gender (male or female) is unknown.

Examples:

Person A: I met someone at the party.
Person B: Oh yeah?  What are they like? (one person, but I don't know if this person is a male or female)

When someone loses their wallet, they should go to the police office immediately.

Hope that helps!

English as a Second Language

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Brian Connelly

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I can answer pretty much any question a student might have about English; about grammar, vocabulary, meanings of words, phrases, expressions or idioms, pronunciation, etc. I can answer questions about how to learn or study English better, how to improve certain aspects of communication (listening, writing, speaking, etc), about why we have certain rules.

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I've been teaching English in Japan, mainly as a private (one-to-one) teacher, but also at companies such as Universal Studios or international airports. I have taught professional interpreters and translators and I have also taught students who dropped out of high school and never learned any English. Several years ago I acquired the CELTA and I have been running my own classroom for the past year.

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I currently have approximately 40 individual students with whom I work one on one. I have also worked with local manufacturing companies, colleges, local retailers, as well as Sharp, Universal Studios, Itami International Airport, Kobe International Airport

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