Gender neutral pronouns: If some person ... lost <?> phone? Its! Historic use of singular their.

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conceive

New Member
Czech, Czech
If some person used that car and lost his phone, then....

Should be there "his" or "her", if we are talking generaly and we do not know if it was a man or a woman?
 
  • riglos

    Senior Member
    Argentina - Spanish
    The trend nowadays is to use the pronoun "their" (in your example) so as to avoid the use of sexist language. I know that there's no grammatical agreement between the referent and the pronoun, but this is language and that's just the way it works. There are also many other alternatives: "his/her", "his or her" and alternating between the two pronouns as well. But as you may see, this makes the reading of a text a little tiresome and difficult to follow.

    Rgds,

    Mara.
     

    Tresley

    Senior Member
    British English
    Using your example as a guide, I would say the following:

    'Whoever used the car has lost their mobile phone'.

    It isn't gramatically correct, but that's what I would say if I didn't know if it had been a man or a woman that used the car before.
     

    Moogey

    Senior Member
    USA English
    I participated in a thread related to this awhile back, I'm sure if you do a search for it you can find it ;)

    I always say his/her. It annoys me quite a bit when people use simply "his", and "their" is usually wrong!

    -M
     

    peteza

    New Member
    English (USA)
    i think "whoever used the car lost his or her mobile phone" would be grammatically correct, but most people use their or his, and some people use her in order to avoid it sounding sexist against women
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    There are other ways to say it that avoid the problem. If you don't know whether a man or a woman used the car last, you also don't know that it is his or her phone, do you? :)

    "Whoever used that car last has left a phone."
    "Someone left a phone in that car, probably the last person who used it."
     

    southerngal

    Senior Member
    American English
    One problem is that many people think his is only a pronoun for males. It also means a person whose sex is unknown. So, if you know the meaning of the word, it isn't a problem using the correct form: he (or his)!
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    southerngal said:
    One problem is that many people think his is only a pronoun for males. It also means a person whose sex is unknown. So, if you know the meaning of the word, it isn't a problem using the correct form: he (or his)!
    Try telling that to the Equality Commission. Historical usage holds no sway in a context where the effect is all, the intent is nothing.
     

    brian

    Senior Member
    AmE (New Orleans)
    southerngal said:
    One problem is that many people think his is only a pronoun for males. It also means a person whose sex is unknown. So, if you know the meaning of the word, it isn't a problem using the correct form: he (or his)!
    We could easily say that another problem is that many people think their is only a pronoun for multiple persons.

    panjandrum said:
    Try telling that to the Equality Commission. Historical usage holds no sway in a context where the effect is all, the intent is nothing.
    Even historical usage would contend that "their" can act as a singular possessive adjective.

    There's nothing inherently wrong with using "their." Just think about when you were learning your first foreign language. You inevitably approached a common word (maybe verb forms, pronouns, etc.) which meant two different things in your language: Italian: sono = I am, they are. English is no exception: your (sing.) vs your (pl.), among many many others. Well imagine if their had always been a 3rd person plural possessive adjective as well as a 3rd person singular one (but different from his, her because it does not denote sex like they do). Then native speakers would grow up not giving a second thought to its perfect usage, and foreign learners would just learn it as another rule to memorize. (We could just as easily pick its to do the job, but I suppose people these days think its objectifies people.)

    The problem is that people don't think this use of their has an historical precedent. But just look it up in Merriam-Webster (here).

    I'd also make the argument that languages evolve, and right now English is evolving (like any other language). As irritating as we find certain things to be, I think we inevitably have to accept some things.


    Brian
     

    brian

    Senior Member
    AmE (New Orleans)
    Thanks, comsci. I suppose I should also add that in formal writing I stick to "his" or the impersonal "one's" (more often the latter, if I can). I never use the slashed "his/her," and I rarely use "his or her" unless it's the only time that particular phrase comes up. However, more often than not, you have to repeat it and it gets tiresome.

    You might wonder how I could still cling to the use of "his" after just defending "their." I'm a purist at heart. I always use "whom" when I should, I never put prepositions at the end of sentences, etc. This is only because I feel it makes for better writing. But when it comes down to it, I accept and welcome the shifts and evolutions of languages without too much of a fight. As long as the changes don't endanger the integrity of the language, such as complicating things further or making things more ambiguous, who am I to argue? Everyone knows what you mean when you say "who" for "whom." Why not drop "whom" all together and have an invariable interrogative/relative pronoun? Simple.


    Brian
     

    . 1

    Banned
    Australian Australia
    their determiner 1 of, belonging to, or associated in some way with them; their finest hour; their own clothes; she tried to combat their mocking her.

    The Collins dictionary seems to be quite comfortable with the use of their as a sexually ambiguous word of association.

    .,,
     

    southerngal

    Senior Member
    American English
    brian8733 said:
    We could easily say that another problem is that many people think their is only a pronoun for multiple persons.
    To many ears, using it today to refer to one person makes the speaker sound uneducated. The reason for using it is usually because of exactly that: the person doesn't realize the definition of he.


    I never put prepositions at the end of sentences
    To my knowledge, that was never actually a rule, just a suggestion by someone in the late 19th century. As Winston Churchill once said, Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put. ;)
     

    brian

    Senior Member
    AmE (New Orleans)
    southerngal said:
    To many ears, using it today to refer to one person makes the speaker sound uneducated. The reason for using it is usually because of exactly that: the person doesn't realize the definition of he.
    Right, BUT I think the uneducated are the forces behind language evolution, and that's nothing of which (;)) to be ashamed. Without Vulgar Latin (the Latin of the common people), we would've never had medieval Latin or any other variations thereof, whence we get so much of our linguistic heritage here in the west. Imagine what Italian would be like without it.

    southerngal said:
    To my knowledge, that was never actually a rule, just a suggestion by someone in the late 19th century. As Winston Churchill once said, Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put. ;)
    1) Only one of your two bolded words is a preposition. "Up" is an adverb in the phrase "to put up with," so it can end the sentence. Ending a sentence with a preposition is something with which I will not put up sounds fine to me, especially if spoken by someone a little while back.

    2) I do agree with you that historical evidence suggests that this "rule" was suggested by someone in the 19th century. But my whole argument is that there are no "rules," per se. Grammarians write "rules" based on linguistic observations, and those change. Sometimes grammarians make the wrong observations, or lend too much bias to their "rules." I think language, particularly grammar, is way more subjective than people give it credit.

    This is exceedingly off-topic by the way. :D


    Brian
     

    southerngal

    Senior Member
    American English
    brian8733 said:
    Right, BUT I think the uneducated are the forces behind language evolution
    i thk u r corekt. ;) Seriously, it is a shame, especially since language skills seem to be declining.


    1) Only one of your two bolded words is a preposition.
    I know; doesn't the arrangement sound silly? Sometimes there really is no acceptable alternative to ending a sentence without one.
     

    foxfirebrand

    Senior Member
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    brian8733 said:
    Ending a sentence with a preposition is something with which I will not put up sounds fine to me, especially if spoken by someone a little while back.
    Brian, Brian, Brian-- Churchill was being facetious! He was lampooning the so-called "rule" by constructing a "correct" sentence that sounded absolutely ridiculous!Trust me, this joke was made more than "a little while back," and it was not intended to "sound fine." Laugh! You're still young-- quick, while there's still time!
    .
     

    brian

    Senior Member
    AmE (New Orleans)
    foxfirebrand said:
    Brian, Brian, Brian-- Churchill was being facetious! He was lampooning the so-called "rule" by constructing a "correct" sentence that sounded absolutely ridiculous!Trust me, this joke was made more than "a little while back," and it was not intended to "sound fine." Laugh! You're still young-- quick, while there's still time!
    .
    Oh I perfectly understand that he was being facetious and making a joke. My point was that he was trying to follow the "rules" to such an extreme so as to make an "absolutely ridiculous" sentence, in order to facetiously point out the inanity of the "rule"; however, his example went too far because it actually violated a different rule. At first glance, the reader thinks he moved two prepositions, "with" and "put," to the beginning of the clause, in keeping with the "rule" that a clause not end in a preposition. BUT, in this sentence, "up" is an adverb, part of the phrase "to put up with," and hence must follow "put" so as to retain the continuity of the idiom. Therefore, the only sentence he could make which would strictly adhere to the "rule" of not ending sentences in prepositions is Ending a sentence with a preposition is a rule with which I will not put up :tick:--which, as I said, sounds fine to me, especially if spoken by someone back in the days of Churchill's time. See what I'm getting at?

    P.S. My "a little while back" was facetious, too. ;)
     

    Victoria32

    Senior Member
    English (UK) New Zealand
    southerngal said:
    One problem is that many people think his is only a pronoun for males. It also means a person whose sex is unknown. So, if you know the meaning of the word, it isn't a problem using the correct form: he (or his)!
    I think that's more an American idea, Southerngal... My son says 'their' (he's 19) I use 'her' just to annoy, and it does sometimes... but I hate "generic he"!

    (Blame it on the 1980s, and the feminism I discovered then, along with having my boss call me a 'girl' when I was nearly 30!
     

    ireney

    Modistra
    Greek Greece Mod of Greek, CC and CD
    a) If such a change occurs (making a sentence like "someone lost their keys" correct which I still have trouble contemplating to tell you the truth) it will not be implemented by the uneducated multitude. It will be nothing like vulgar Latin. In fact it will be imposed by a group or rather (or very) educated people.

    b) I know this is an 'English only' forum but I can't help wondering what our local feminists will do since 'they' is also gender-defined in Greek (αυτοί masc. αυτές fem. αυτά neut.) (unless of course they decide to press for us using the neuter in general instead of he/she his/hers which will make for some nice comic strips)

    c) Afterthought: Why 'their' and not 'it'/'its'? I mean if 'their' can become singular why not use something that is already in singular form and is most emphatically without a gender?
     

    Celador

    Senior Member
    English / Scotland
    "They" is nowadays commonly used as a gender non-specific singular pronoun, and it drives me nuts since the rest of the grammar hasn't caught up with this usage. For example, there is no word "themself", so you hear "themselves" referring to a single individual, whereas "-selves" is plainly plural.

    Perhaps the rest of the grammar will eventually catch up.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Their has been used as a singular pronoun since the 14th century.
    It's not so much introducing a new usage as re-introducing an old one.

    Repeating some of what has been already said, Fowler's New Modern English Usage has this to say about their:
    Fowler (1926) was among those who objected to the use of their in contexts that call "logically" for his (though the use of the masculine gender to cover both has lately been called into question) or his or her. [...] The issue is unresolved, but it begins to look as if the use of an indefinite third person singular is now passing unnoticed by standard speakers (except those trained in traditional grammar) and is being left unaltered by copy editors.
     

    brian

    Senior Member
    AmE (New Orleans)
    ireney said:
    a) If such a change occurs (making a sentence like "someone lost their keys" correct which I still have trouble contemplating to tell you the truth) it will not be implemented by the uneducated multitude. It will be nothing like vulgar Latin. In fact it will be imposed by a group or rather (or very) educated people.
    I think it depends on what you mean by "implemented." In my post above, when I mentioned Medieval and/or Vulgar Latin (I can't remember, both serve the purpose), I said that the uneducated were the forces behind language evolution (not always of course; it's quite complicated, we know). I certainly agree the it is the educated who will formally implement the change by rewriting the grammar books. However, the grammarian's job, in my opinion, is to write the rules based on observations of linguistic shifts, changes, evolutions, trends, etc, many (maybe most) of which occur due to the forces of uneducated language. Wouldn't you agree that modern Greek is much more simplified and complicated due, at least in part, to the simplications throughout the years by the uneducated, vulgar crowds? Take koiné Greek as an example.

    ireney said:
    c) Afterthought: Why 'their' and not 'it'/'its'? I mean if 'their' can become singular why not use something that is already in singular form and is most emphatically without a gender?
    Exactly! I said the same thing a few posts up:

    brian8733 said:
    (We could just as easily pick its to do the job, but I suppose people these days think its objectifies people.)
    Language is quite an oddity. I wish I understood it...


    Brian
     

    gaer

    Senior Member
    US-English
    brian8733 said:
    You might wonder how I could still cling to the use of "his" after just defending "their."
    I call it having "an open mind" and "knowing the fact". ;)

    Seriously, I'm one of those people who rarely uses "whom" in speech or in writing, but I'm very careful to use it in WR. I also write "who(m)", in writing, when I am writing to anyone learning English. I do object to something like this: "Whom do you wish to speak TO"? I'm sure you will know why.

    I do think it is terribly important to know what the rules are, what they were a hundred years ago, and what they were centuries ago, if possible. The whole question of the usage of "his/her/their" continues to go round and round, in thread after thread, and the same arguments are used again and again, mostly with very little knowledge of what has been in the past—and by whom.

    I can't help but mention this one ridiculous example, but it does illustrate a point:

    Everyone [whom] my wife invited to my surprise party came. He gave me a wondeful gift.

    Gaer
     

    Victoria32

    Senior Member
    English (UK) New Zealand
    Rebecca Hendry said:
    I would use she/he or he/she.

    (s)he is also commonly used, but I don't think I have ever encountered s/he.
    I like to use s/he all the time - when spoken it is indistinguishable from she but when written it makes an inclusive point.
     

    ireney

    Modistra
    Greek Greece Mod of Greek, CC and CD
    Brian, both the vulgar Latin and Koine came about as you described.
    Can we say the same about the replacement of 'he/his' by 'they/their'?

    Unless I am mistaken the majority of the population was quite happy using 'he/his', understanding perfectly well that, in certain context, they didn't denote a male person but a person of unknown gender. (If for example an announcement was made of the "Someone forgot his keys at the bar yesterday; Please ask the barman about them" kind and a woman came up no one was going to be surprised)

    Who is behind the proposed change then if not the 'people'? I believe it's some groups perhaps overtly concerned about equality. These groups are usually formed by people with at the very least a good education. Therefore we cannot say the use of 'they/theirs' has much in common with the usual way changes happen in a language.

    I am sorry I didn't see your post about it/its before! :eek:
     

    brian

    Senior Member
    AmE (New Orleans)
    ireney said:
    Who is behind the proposed change then if not the 'people'? I believe it's some groups perhaps overtly concerned about equality. These groups are usually formed by people with at the very least a good education. Therefore we cannot say the use of 'they/theirs' has much in common with the usual way changes happen in a language.
    I think you may be right in the case of this particular thread topic, which deals with "gender sensitive" possessive pronouns. Or perhaps its a combinations of what we're both saying. But I was just being more broad, considering linguistic evolution on the whole. You wouldn't say that the push for who instead of whom or If I was instead of If I were stems from overtly-equality-minded groups, would you? Like I implied in a previous post, it may just be too difficult to pin it down to just one cause.
     

    rsweet

    Senior Member
    English, North America
    I hope this isn't too off-topic, but why does English differ from Romance languages in this respect? In French or Spanish or Italian the gender of the possessive pronoun after "everyone," for example, would usually agree with the gender of the noun it referred to, not the subject.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I'm a bit surprised at the slight antipathy to using their as a neutral singular.
    "Someone left their umbrella behind last week!" shouted Pamela last night. Not an eyebrow lifted.

    Pamela is not exactly at the leading edge of linguistic evolution. She's more likely to remember the good old days when their (singular) roamed free.

    "Someone left its umbrella behind last week!" - difficult to imagine:).
     

    maxiogee

    Banned
    English
    Pamela is making unfounded assumptions — someone left an umbrella behind, true, but it might have been someone else's which was lent on a wet evening.
     

    timpeac

    Senior Member
    English (England)
    rsweet said:
    I hope this isn't too off-topic, but why does English differ from Romance languages in this respect? In French or Spanish or Italian the gender of the possessive pronoun after "everyone," for example, would usually agree with the gender of the noun it referred to, not the subject.
    Isn't it like them though? All languages have their peculiarities in this respect - it comes down more to languages not conveniently fitting in with the rules or structure that we have imposed on them than anything illogical. I'll repeat here what I said earlier in this thread -

    I would say English does have a gender-neutral 3rd person singular pronoun in English - it is "they" which happens to be a homonym of the 3rd person plural. I'm sure that this was discussed before and examples found, including from Shakespeare, of what is viewed by prescriptive grammarians as "the third person plural" forms being used to indicate a singular of unknown gender for centuries. After all, you can draw parallels with German "Sie", French "vous", Spanish "Usted" - all of these pronouns may refer to different persons or different numbers of the verb. Just because their respective normative grammars have caught up enough to reflect that fact without stigmatising one of their uses doesn't mean that English isn't functioning in the same way.
    "They" is no more plural than "she" female. They are just words used to denote things - "flower" no more is a botanical structure any more than it is "something that flows" - it is a collection of marks on the page or strokes on the computer screen!

    This argument is just going round in circles (and I'm not moaning at rsweet in this post, I just quoted her to make the point that there is no one to one correlation in the Romance languages, or indeed German, between form and meaning of the pronouns either - I've gone general!!). Some people view "they" = "plural" therefore for them there will always be something at least uncomfortable at worst "wrong" in using it to denote something singular. Rude old languages go ahead and use it anyway. So we can either presume that people have formed too specific a correlation between form and meaning in this case or we can presume that language is "wrong". I know which my money is on, and I also know which opinion I will continue to see for as long as this thread keeps going from certain others. This is getting boring.
     

    brian

    Senior Member
    AmE (New Orleans)
    timpeac said:
    too specific a correlation between form and meaning
    Ah, and there's the rub! I'm in full agreement with you. And I know this issue has come up dozens of times here at WR, but it will continue to do so as long as the site is up and running. In this case, the discussion blossomed in another thread and was just moved to this one for convenience and continuity. The discussion there had more to do with the forces that be, with regard to linguistic evolution, particularly in the case of these possessive pronouns, than with the correctness or incorrectness of their uses. But anyhow, this is starting to become the garbage pile thread that all these discussions, which inevitably will pop up from time to time, are relegated to. So, yes, it does get boring after a while.
     

    Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    ireney said:
    c) Afterthought: Why 'their' and not 'it'/'its'? I mean if 'their' can become singular why not use something that is already in singular form and is most emphatically without a gender?
    Because, just like in Greek, you are supposed to use the neuter pronouns to talk about "things", not "people". Using the neuter to talk about people comes off as derogatory.
    Another reason is that it can cause confusion with "it" as a dummy pronoun.

    "A person never knows when a hurricane can damage his/her/their house." :tick:
    "A person never knows when a hurricane can damage its house." --> The hurricane's house? :confused:

    rsweet said:
    I hope this isn't too off-topic, but why does English differ from Romance languages in this respect? In French or Spanish or Italian the gender of the possessive pronoun after "everyone," for example, would usually agree with the gender of the noun it referred to, not the subject.
    I'm not sure what you mean. In Romance languages, a possessive pronoun that refers to "everyone" agrees with "everyone". But I think you can do this in English, too.
     

    ireney

    Modistra
    Greek Greece Mod of Greek, CC and CD
    I realise this is off-topic but the neuter is used quite often in Greek to denote a person. In fact even the word 'person' is neuter in Greek :)

    Anyway, I wasn't implying that the neuter should be used. The majority of people use 'his' as a non gender-specific word in some cases. Changing it to 'their' or whatever, is forcing a change in their perception/use of the language without (as I see it) a really good reason.
     

    Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    ireney said:
    I realise this is off-topic but the neuter is used quite often in Greek to denote a person. In fact even the word 'person' is neuter in Greek :)
    I know that anthropos is neuter*, but we were talking about personal pronouns. Do you ever refer to a human being using a neuter personal pronoun?

    *No, I don't. See below. :eek:
     

    brian

    Senior Member
    AmE (New Orleans)
    I think rsweet's question has to do with the inflection of Romance languages' possessive adjectives to agree with the gender of the nouns they modify. This goes back to the Latin. English, however, does not inflect, nor do we have genders. That, I think, is the biggest reason. If the subject is the same as who the poss. adj. refers to, Latin would most likely use suus, and its inflected variations, to mean his/her/its/their/your (own). Italian still retains this with suo even if the subject is different.

    However, in Latin, if the subject is talking about someone else's possession, even though the possessive is usually just omitted, a writer could use the inflected genitive form of the personal and demonstrative pronouns, like eius = of him (his), illius = of that man (his), etc. These don't modify the nouns being possessed, and so in a way relate to English his/her/its/their, which do not inflect, and which could be considered the equals of of him/her/it/them.

    There's a lot of history behind it all. Another thing is that English is Germanic. I know nothing about how German does possessive pronouns/adjectives. I'd like to hear some input on that, if it's not too off-topic. :)


    Brian
     

    ireney

    Modistra
    Greek Greece Mod of Greek, CC and CD
    Yes we do (and yes this is off-topic). It is used for young(er) people and is also considered a cute and familiar way to adress someone. It can be insulting of course but only in certain context.

    Άνθρωπος masculine
    Άτομο neuter
     

    rsweet

    Senior Member
    English, North America
    gaer said:
    I can't help but mention this one ridiculous example, but it does illustrate a point:

    Everyone [whom] my wife invited to my surprise party came. He gave me a wondeful gift.

    Gaer
    Love this! :D Thanks, Gaer.
     
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