Gender-neutral third person singular pronouns: July 2005

Discussion in 'English Only' started by fenixpollo, Jul 13, 2005.

  1. fenixpollo

    fenixpollo moderator

    American English
    When the gender of the subject is not specified, is it appropriate to use "they" or "their" as a singluar pronoun to refer to that subject, instead of "he/she", "his/her", or simply "he" or "his"?

    This question came up in a thread in the Spanish General Vocabulary forum(link). Here is the original context:
    I thought that this topic deserved special consideration. I'm sure that it has been discussed in other threads, but I could only find it mentioned in one other thread:

    Cheeers and thanks in advance for your opinions.
  2. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    I've invented pronouns and other words to solve these gender-referent issues, which I foresee as only getting worse in years to come.

    Ms/r, for example, pronounced "Mizzer." And more pertinently, his/r, of course pronounced "hizzer." I'm not sure him/r sounds feminine enough, and I'm still working on a pronunciation for s/he. I can say it, but it's not a real natural sound for an AE speaker-- a sibilant followed by "he," with a "silent glottal stop" in between. That's the hard part to mastr/s.

    I think it might be a little like that sch sound the Dutch used as a shibboleth during WWII, to weed out the German spies in their midst.
  3. VenusEnvy

    VenusEnvy Senior Member

    Maryland, USA
    English, United States
    But, are they understood by the average English-speaker? If I heard someone say these pronouns, I might think for a moment, give a puzzled look, or simply say, "What was that?"
  4. Kelly B

    Kelly B Senior Member

    USA English
  5. VenusEnvy

    VenusEnvy Senior Member

    Maryland, USA
    English, United States
    Kelly: Thanks for the link! :thumbsup: That thread is thorough! :p
  6. foxfirebrand

    foxfirebrand Senior Member

    The Northern Rockies
    Southern AE greatly modified by a 1st-generation Scottish-American mother, and growing up abroad.
    Of course they're not commonly understood-- I just invented them! That's why I announced it beforehand, with an explanation, so as not to just spring all this on an unsuspecting public.

    Did people understand Ms. when it was first coined? It had to be announced and explained, and the derision of hecklers had to be shamed into silence.

    I in particular was baffled by herstory, but I've since come to understand that momentary disorientation is the price we sometimes have to pay for breaking new ground.
  7. fenixpollo

    fenixpollo moderator

    American English
    And how! You're a better researcher than I, Kelly! :thumbsup:

    Timepac summed up what some of you have said in this thread and in the one that Kelly posted:
    Certain people won't even notice if you use "they" as a singular pronoun. Other people will be quite irritated. Most people seem to agree that "his/her" (or "his or her") is more correct and more formal, and that "they" should never refer to a singular. I think that most people also agree, however, that "they" is quite common among native speakers.

    The principal debate appears to be about the approach that English Learners should take: use what's common, or use what's correct? This is a question that is being asked in other threads right now, and seems to be a question for the ages. :)

    Thanks, everybody, for your responses on this question.

  8. jess oh seven

    jess oh seven Senior Member

    UK/US, English
    i usually just use "they" when i don't know someone's gender.
  9. remosfan Senior Member

    Canada, English
    One thing that sort of bothers me (but that I'm really guilty of too) is using "they" even when the gender of the person is known, at least to the speaker. Saying things like "A friend of mine came by to pick up their book," really gets on my nerves some times. It's almost like you're trying to hide something. :)
  10. Mita

    Mita Senior Member

    Chile - Español
    Fenixpollo: Thanks for creating this thread!
    I prefer to use what is correct :) Even if saying "her or his" sounds odd :p
  11. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    It is almost always possible to avoid the problem. I find the his/her option clumsy and so very unsatisfactory.
    One option is to convert to plural - which almost always works, although it may require that the entire piece be re-written to be consistent:(

    Now is when the clients can check that the entire organization is at their service.

    The sentence as a whole is not great ("Now is when":eek: ), but I am attending only to the current topic:D

    :eek: I have, on rare occasions, been known to use they or their to avoid the his/her dilemma, but I always hope noone will notice.:eek:
  12. Amityville

    Amityville Senior Member

    English UK
    Whilst not wishing to be phallocentrist, I have grown a bit impatient with these cumbersome manoeuvres such as always putting it into the plural. If speaking of individual rather than crowd behaviour, I want to use a singular. I'm still conscious of my audience (how pompous) and sometimes still do twist it round to be politically correct depending on context, but say just 'his' if I can. If talking about a traditionally male job for instance, I will have to say his/her or their to make it clear that I'm not accepting that on its own terms which 'his on its own might imply, and 'her' on it's own would be too pointed and distract from what I was saying in the first place, but in more neutral situations I'm going to say just 'his' (becoming more determined as I write :mad:) :) . It is only a problem in English, as far as I'm aware ?
  13. Isotta

    Isotta Senior Member

    English, Hodgepodge
    Ah yes! And then there are the collective nouns!!

    The jury has reached a decision.
    The jury are eating their lunches.
    The jury is eating lunch.

    Which is correct? Or are they all correct? :)

    Anyway, in terms of "his/her" versus "their", you must simply look at the antecedents, or the noun to which the possessive adjective ("my, your, his, her, its, our, your, their) refers.

    I am happy to find a language revisionist in our midst! Though I don't know if Foxfirebrand's language edit was necessary. There are more pressing matters at hand, such as adverbs and adverb clauses used in nominative places, as panjandrum noted.

    Regarding "herstory," consider:
    French feminist Monique Wittig proposed replacing the automatic utilisation of "ils" for a group of mixed genders with "elles."

    About his/her, I see that less and less frequently. I think being emminently politically correct is going out of fashion.

    Two cents from Isotta.
  14. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
  15. fenixpollo

    fenixpollo moderator

    American English
    You should open a new thread on that, Isotta. I'll contribute my annoyance with the British references to a football team in the plural form.

    I find myself doing as panjandrum and re-phrasing things to avoid the issue entirely. If I can't get around it, I'll just use the plural, and nobody ever notices. :rolleyes:

    Thanks again, everybody. Keep 'em coming!
  16. Isotta

    Isotta Senior Member

    English, Hodgepodge
  17. modgirl Senior Member

    USA English, French, Russian
    Most people I know do not consider using they/their/them when refering to a singular noun as intelligent English.

    However, there is some very shocking news: the pronouns he/his also refer to a person whose sex is unknown! It's amazing how many people don't know that fact.

    Unfortunately, some very insecure people kind of forgot that fact and only concentrated on the specifically masculine denotation. They convinced much of society that the terms were insulting and degrading to women.

    As a result, we have some very awkward situations:

    If he or she is cold, then he or she should put on his or her coat (!)

    Of course, using a plural in this particular case works well: If they are cold, then they should put on their coats.

    However, sometimes the plural simply doesn't work or is awkward.

    Personally, I would highly recommend that you never use they/them/their in place of a singular pronoun. I would further assess the audience for whom you're writing and choose either he/him/his or the more awkward he or she and his or her.
  18. VenusEnvy

    VenusEnvy Senior Member

    Maryland, USA
    English, United States
    While I agree with you that using the masculine pronoun is an acceptable and common alternative . . . .

    As language is fluid, and ever-changing, I am skeptical to believe that this rule is a "fact". People may be aware that he/his can refer to a person whose gender is unknown, but it doesn't mean that because they don't use it, they don't know. I, personally, don't use he/his to refer to both sexes. This doesn't mean that I don't understand why other people do, or that I'm not aware of it. I am, but I choose not to express my writing in this way. To each his/her own.

    I don't quite understand why you call these people "insecure", and why you seem to refer to them as "these people". Many aspects of our language have altered in order to conform to new norms (regarding homosexuality, women's issues, racial issues, etc.).

    This is just my humble opinion.
  19. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Here, it is not a matter of insecurity. We have the world's most sophisticated equality legislation;)

    Using he/his/him or mankind even with the intention that they should be neutral words will be perceived as discriminatory. It is therefore not acceptable in public documents:) or documents created within the public sector:D
  20. ChrisDutch New Member

    The shibboleth was the word "Scheveningen" ( a beach town which is part of The Hague).

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