What happens when you’re writing a sentence and the gender of the person being spoken about isn’t known? Example: “Has anyone brought some quarters with them”? “Anyone” is clearly a singular pronoun of unknown gender, but the prepositional object “them” is plural. This has traditionally been considered a grammatical error.
Many languages, including English, have a class of words that are used as replacements or substitutes for nouns and noun phrases that have a general reference. They’re called pronouns. Of specific interest here are personal pronouns, which may have three uses (in each case, these pronouns refer, respectively, to a male, a female, and a group):
1) Subject of a sentence: he, she, and they (e.g., He/She/They ate all the candy.)
2) Object of a sentence: him, her, them (e.g., I saw him/her/them at the ball game.)
3) Possessive: his, her(s), their(s) (e.g., It’s his/her/their car. The car is his/hers/theirs.)
One of the challenges with English is that there’s no gender-neutral singular pronoun. And no, don’t even think of using it. This was not a problem until the 18th century, when a certain group of male academics decided that he/his/him should be used to represent anyone, regardless of gender. This was not a problem then, because women were under-represented in most non-fiction books, and in fictional novels or occasional biographies, it was not a problem. Here’s an example of using a male pronoun when a gender-neutral pronoun would be more appropriate: The way a person spends his leisure time helps define his values. The writer is referring to “a person”, any person of any gender, but uses the generic possessive pronoun “his”. However, especially when women’s rights became more prominent, the use of the masculine pronoun as generic was considered sexist and, for many, it became unsuitable.
A number of solutions have been proposed
- Use “he or she”, “him or her”, “his or hers”—Example The way a person spends his or her leisure time helps define his or her values. This can quickly become clumsy. There were even shortcuts proposed (e.g., he/she, s/he, him/her, or his/her(s)). However, many grammar books and style guides don’t approve of these. And try reading them aloud or use them in speech.
- Instead of always using “he”, as before, always use “she”—Example: The way a person spends her leisure time helps define her values. A number of feminist writers, or writers writing specifically about women, use this form. However, if applied to generic cases, it’s no better than using “he” all the time.
- Alternate using “he” and “she” in the text (usually in narrative or non-fiction, and only from section to section)—Example: A person should use his head. // A person should use great care when selecting her attire. This may be hard to implement, it may be hard for the reader to follow, and it may just be confusing.
- Change the wording from singular to plural.—Example: The way people spend their leisure time helps define their values. Not too bad.
- Rewrite the sentence without the pronoun—Example: The way a person spends leisure time helps define that person’s values. This is obviously vague, and may get a little clunky.
- Reword the sentence—Example: A person’s values may be defined by leisure time usage.). The use of passive voice makes this sentence very weak.
- Come up with a new gender-neutral pronoun. So far, this has not been successful.
The singular “they” solution
Another solution is to use a third-person plural pronoun (they, them, their(s)) in place of the gender-uncertain singular pronoun. However, these pronouns usually, and are supposed to, refer to a group of people or things. Here’s an example of the use of the singular “they”: The way a person spends their leisure time helps define their values. But a grammarian would obviously object to this sentence, because it’s considered a mistake to use a plural pronoun (“their”) with a singular subject (“a person”) or object (“values”).
What’s interesting is that the singular “they” is not a new idea. Before the academics referred to above created the rule to use “he/him/his” as the “neutral” pronoun, it had a long prior history of being acceptable. It was used by such glittering authors as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Byron, Swift, Austen, and was even used in the King James Bible.
What to do? First of all, it depends on you. Which of the above options (or maybe some creation of your own) would work best for your writing? Second, a lot depends on your audience. What kind of reception might you get from using some of the above ideas? Third, it may also depend on your editor and/or publisher. Do they have published guidelines you need to follow? And finally, whichever option you choose, be sure that you’re consistent throughout your writing.
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