Copy editors can help

Sometimes, a simple fix can make the difference between a reader finishing a story and giving up in befuddlement. I encountered this sentence in a story about two young men pleading guilty to a drugstore robbery

Rhaim Santiago assaulted the cashier by striking them in the head with the butt of the firearm.

A paragraph later in the story said the police report had not identified the clerk who was hurt in the robbery, so I suppose the reporter could not use the singular pronoun that would have been appropriate (him or her). I did wonder whether the police would have at least reported the sex of the clerk. I checked for other stories about the crime and found that the first report did use “her” to refer to the clerk. I spent too much time puzzling over this sentence.

Nowadays, many people argue that using “they” or “them” to refer to indefinite pronouns such as “someone” or “anyone” is acceptable. I haven’t gone over that side yet. In this case, however, the antecedent (cashier) was a noun for a person. The writer needed to use a singular personal pronoun, and English offers only masculine or feminine pronouns.

A copy editor could have solved this for the reader with this edit:

Rhaim Santiago assaulted struck the cashier by striking them in the head with the butt of the firearm.