The Pronoun Problem


(Photo credit: Mike Kanert)

What to do about gender neutrality?

It was so easy when I was growing up. We were taught that “he” referred to all humans, of either sex, and we believed it.

In fact it didn’t and, as an excellent analysisI just came across points out, throughout history it hardly ever has. (Carolyn Jacobson, the University of Pennsylvania graduate assistant who wrote the piece I just linked to back in 1995, uses this wonderfully oddball example to prove that we don’t read “he” as referring to both men and women: “The average American needs the small routines of getting ready for work. As he shaves or blow-dries his hair or pulls on his pantyhose, he is easing himself by small stages into the demands of the day.”)

In fact, the use of “man” and male pronouns to refer to human beings reflects a society in which men are the only beings considered fully human. As the second wave of feminism came along to spread this news, we looked for alternatives. It was relatively simple to substitute “human” for “man” and “humanity” (or even “people”) for “men.” But the problem of singular pronouns—what to do about “he” and “his”—was a much greater one. The problem first arose sometime in the 1970s. Forty-plus years later, we still haven’t figured out how to deal with it.

What to do about gender neutrality?

First, some ground rules. Some folks are still on the fence about this. Hold-outs continue to use “he” as a universal pronoun. But every major stylebook advises against it, and I, personally, think it is inexcusable.

“He” and “him” refer to a man, a boy, or a male animal. Period. You can no more use “he” to refer to people of both sexes than you can use “boy” to refer to a grown African-American man. This is not something anyone should have a choice about anymore–it is part of the evolution of our understanding about human rights and the role language plays in creating—or shutting down—change.

Beyond that, however, you have some choices. Sadly, none of them is very good:

1. You can replace he with “he or she” and him with “him or her.” He or she who hesitates is lost.

2. You can skip the “or” and say “he/she,” “him/her,” or opt for a slimmed down look and say “s/he” (which, however, begs the question of what to do about “him” and “her”). S/he who hesitates is lost.

3. You can try to re-write the sentence completely to leave out pronouns: The person who hesitates is lost.

4. You can turn every problematic singular sentence into a plural one: Those who hesitate are lost.

5. In certain contained circumstances, you can alternate the use of “he” and “she:”

A person who isn’t quite sure what to do next has several choices:

  • She can consider her options carefully, and make a thoughtful decision..
  • He can ask others for advice.
  • She can hesitate, and be lost.

The problem is, solutions like these are cumbersome at best, unworkable at worst. “He or she,” which is more clear than alternating the use of “he” and “she,” and just slightly more professional and formal than “s/he,” can result in impossibly convoluted language, especially when it involves other pronoun forms. Consider:

“Every employee should talk to his or her manager about what he or she needs to do in order to complete his or her project.” It’s enough to make the writer gag and the reader jump off his or her ledge.

Option four, re-writing a sentence to turn it from singular to plural, is the one I see recommended most often, but it works better in some cases than in others. “Employees should talk to their managers about what they need to do in order to complete their projects,” is not too bad, except for the possible confusion about whether individual employees each have multiple managers or projects or just one apiece. But compare these alternatives:

Every man must listen to his conscience, following the voice in his head.

All people must listen to their consciences, following the voices in their heads.

Not only does the original sentence lose quite a bit of poetic (if clichéd) punch in the pluralized version, it veers dangerously close to a prescription for mass schizophrenia.

Reader, there is a fifth option. It’s in common use informally, but represents a radical step for formal grammar and is far from universally accepted. Nonetheless, it is out there, being debated and approved by even some among the grammatical establishment. It’s the use of the singular “they.”

The fact is, as grammarians will point out, the singular “they” (if a person hesitates, they are lost) has been around for a long time. As Arnold notes in the link above, it can be found in the works of Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens, among others. The arguments against its use seem to have originated in the same misguided attempts to mold English around Latin that led to the now-abandoned  argument against splitting infinitives.

The singular “they” allows us to put away convoluted attempts to neutralize gender in one swift move, no muss, no fuss. Although it can sound odd, I have gradually come to the conclusion that it is the most elegant solution we English-speakers have to this problem-that-will-not-die.

That doesn’t mean I use it. Most of my work involves writing communications for others and I know usage of the singular “they” in formal writing is still unacceptable to most. Even in my own work, it still often sounds awkward and grating, and I find myself re-writing sentences to avoid it. 

But having decided it is, ultimately, the best solution, I have vowed to start using it more. It’s a matter of conscience for me, because ultimately, it’s about removing the language’s built-in bigotry. As for you, you’ll have to decide for yourself.  Everyone must listen to their conscience, and do what they think is right.

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