Prescriptivist’s Corner: Gender-Neutral Personal Pronouns

English is replete with sexually general words, such as anyone, everyone, person, and oneself. But it has no sexually general personal pronouns. There is it, but that pronoun is generally considered unacceptable to use with people.

The traditional answer to this situation was to use the masculine he, him, his in situations calling for sexual ambiguity. Many see this as sexist—and in some cases as silly, as a famous 1984 example from the New York State Assembly: “everyone will be able to decide for himself whether or not to have an abortion.”

So what to do about this conundrum?

The first choice is to recast the sentence to avoid use of a personal pronoun. Instead of saying “pass the ball to him,” say, “pass the ball to the point guard.” This doesn’t always work, however. Often trying to avoid use of personal pronoun becomes too complex and awkward.

When you can’t recast the sentence, the standard response has been to use he or she/him or her/his or hers, as in “throw the ball to him or her.” Unfortunately, this is also an awkward construction. This awkwardness can be reduced by using he or she intermittently, just often enough to make clear that the reference can be to either sex. In between, use the traditional masculine pronoun.

Another solution, common in American academic writing, is to simply alternate between he and she. Use he in one paragraph and she in the next—skipping strict alternation to maintain sense; in other words if you use she to refer to the point guard in one paragraph, continue to use she whenever referring to that particular individual.

A final solution that is gaining currency, over the objection of hardcore grammarians, is to use the plural they as a gender-neutral, singular, personal pronoun.

Use of the plural they and its related forms to refer to singular subjects of indefinite pronouns is an old and respected practice. Writers have noted the problem caused by the lack of gender-neutral third person pronoun for nearly a thousand years—it’s not just feminists who have complained.

Chaucer used the plural to refer to the indefinite: “And whoso fyndeth him out of swich blame, They wol come up…” (The Pardoner’s Prologue, c. 1395). Here the plural they refers to the indefinite whoso.

Other writers who’ve used this dodge include Shakespeare, the translators of the Authorized (King James) Bible, Byron, Austen, and Auden.

While use as a reference to indefinite pronouns has had widespread acceptance for centuries, many grammarians have objected over the use of they to refer to singular nouns of either sex. But this too is an old practice.

Swift used it: “every fool can do as they’re bid” (Polite Conversation, 1758). Other writers who’ve engaged in this practice include Thackeray and Orwell. It’s not as common as use to refer to indefinite pronouns, but it has existed for centuries and been used by many great writers.

Finally, in the last two decades, themself, as opposed to the standard themselves, has been picked by some to be a gender-neutral replacement for himself and herself. Traditionally, themself has been considered an incorrect form, although it was the preferred form up until about 1540, when it was replaced by themselfs and later themselves. This reintroduction of the old form in a new role offers one way out, although many bridle at this usage as ungrammatical. (And my version of Microsoft Word keeps automatically “correcting” it as an error as I write this article.)

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