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Consider the following sentence:

A person who does not read this blog regularly may find that ____ grammar suffers.

Now fill in the blank with the appropriate pronoun. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll unflinchingly fill the blank with “his.” If you lean leftish sociopolitically, you’re more likely to provide “her” (or to alternate between “his” and “her” when using such sentences). If the thought of filling in that blank fills you with uncertainty or even dread, maybe you’d supply “their,” which makes the grammar nerds squirm.

The dilemma here is that English does not have a widely accepted gender-neutral pronoun. Historically, we’ve defaulted to the masculine pronouns, but that’s become politically incorrect; on the other hand, defaulting always to the feminine pronoun can be patronizing. I suppose we could use the gender-neutral “its,” but that leads to ambiguity (in the sentence above, would the “its” refer to the person or the blog?) and is awfully dehumanizing. I want to be ok with allowing “they” and “their” to serve as gender-neutral third-person pronouns (I believe this is how some other languages do it), but I have trouble putting aside my grammar alarm and doing it in practice.

Bryan A. Garner, whom I’ll keep citing post after post, suggests that you can often write around the problem by rephrasing things (see the entry on “sexism” if you’re following along in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage). He proposes the following fixes (most of this is direct quotation):

  • Delete the pronoun reference altogether. E.g. “Every manager should read memoranda as soon as they are delivered to him by a mail clerk.” Just strike out “to him” in this case.
  • Change the pronoun to an article. E.g.: “An author may adopt any of the following dictionaries in preparing his manuscript.” Replace “his” with  “a.”
  • Pluralize, so that “he” becomes “they.” E.g.: “A student should avoid engaging in any activities that might bring discredit to his school.” Rewrite as follows: “Students should avoid engaging in any activities that might bring discredit to their school.”
  • Use the relative pronoun “who,” especially when the generic “he” follows an “if.” E.g.: “If a student cannot use standard English, he cannot be expected to master the nuances of the literature assigned in this course.” Rewrite as follows: “A student who cannot use standard English cannot be expected to master the nuances of the literature assigned in this course.”

So there you have it, a few tricks a person may use for getting around the issue if he/she/it/they is/are so inclined.

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  1. as a columnist, I’m going to have to bookmark this very helpful post. My readers will appreciate it.

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  2. Thanks for these helpful suggestions.
    I have one more suggestion from when I had to tackle this problem while writing a nonfiction book about a therapy I developed. I knew most of my readers would probably be women, but I did not want to offend men by the exclusive use of the feminine pronoun. It was suggested by another published author that at appropriate section breaks I shift the gender. Masculine for one section, feminine for another. It seemed to have done well.

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  3. I reword when possible to avoid the situation. Or, I’ll choose a gender based on my audience or the context of the writing. Sometimes, I do use his/her. My point is that which one to use or whether or not to use both depends on the situation. And, sometimes, I don’t care… like in an email. So many people don’t notice anyway!

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  4. I completely agree and it is more natural-sounding anyway to leave out the his/her etc.

    If the sentence and those surrounding it are well constructed and the context is clear, there is no need for the his or her.

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  5. Hi Darryl,
    You wrote the following: ‘If the thought of filling in that blank fills you with uncertainty or even dread, maybe you’d supply “their,” which makes the grammar nerds squirm’.
    I disagree with your reasons for using the word “their” primarily because from the sentence you supplied one cannot know whether the person is male or female. There are no obvious hints or information to guide one. Therefore, as far as I know, “their” is the only choice.
    Best wishes,
    Geoff

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    1. To my mind, this is all the more reason to have a gender-neutral pronoun, and yet “their” (or an unclumsy alternative) isn’t widely accepted. In other words, “their” isn’t really a valid choice because it’s considered by many to be wrong; yet in this case, neither “he” nor “she” is a valid choice either, for the reason you give.

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      1. ‘In other words, “their” isn’t really a valid choice because it’s considered by many to be wrong’

        Sorry, Daryl, but “being considered by many to be wrong” is not a valid reason to let “their,” the perfect substitute (it IS a gender-neutral pronoun), languish from disuse.
        The English language has been changing since there ever was an English language. Its grammar, its spelling, its vocabulary, has never been constant. How many hundreds of words is Shakespeare responsible for having contributed to the language? Undoubtedly many of those were considered to be wrong. Didn’t bother him. Nor should it have.
        I use “their” whenever it’s appropriate, and haven’t had any complaints yet. (Nor would I pay attention to them had I had any.)

        If you were dying of thirst you would surely drink from the nearest water source? Go ahead, go for it! When enough people do, critical mass would ensure that everybody does.

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    2. Oh, I agree that it’s not a valid reason not to move in that direction. I guess my point is that you’ll get dirty looks from lots of folk while you make the transition. I’m not anti-language-change.

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  6. I appreciated your post and hope I can retain it as I am disabled in the written word (sentence structure) and it is a burden on me. I am not going to stop writing even though. I can speak well maybe I need to Skype?
    Thank you

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  7. Funny you should mention this… There is a particular problem that a lot of teachers and lecturers face in South Africa. The problem is that black cultures languages seem to be gender neutral (I might be ignorant of our other 9 official languages, so maybe someone has a better explanation).
    Try as they might, they just can’t get the students (almost said “their students”…did I correct it…correctly?) to refer to people or objects with the correct gender. They will allways say she, wheter the person is male or female. They even tend to refer to objects, such as a car, as she…as in “She had a flat tyre”…meaning the car, not the driver.

    As for the english language and grammer…I must admit, even my spelling is a bit rusty and I dread opening the new Office 7 for spelling or grammer checks…what the heck did they do with that application? Any how, getting off topic.

    Thanks for the great post. I have allways felt uncomfortable with “their”…it just feels wrong…

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  8. As an English teacher, I have to add that there is always this option:

    A person who does not read this blog regularly may find that that person’s grammar suffers.

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  9. I have to admit I am guilty of using “their” because I want to maintain gender neutrality. And yes, I am uncomfortable when I have to do it but my desire for gender neutrality trumps my desire to be grammatically perfect. Bryan Garner’s suggestions are great, however. It’s just a matter of changing how I word my statements. Hmmmmm…….

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  10. As a French speaking person the “its” solution does not sound wrong. I naturally solve the uncertainty of what the “its” refers to by assuming it is the closest noun. In the example you provide it is the blog whose grammar suffers.

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    1. Ah, but there’s the problem! The sentence actually means to say that the person’s grammar will suffer (since this blog is largely about improving grammar). So the “its” is ambiguous, and going for the nearest noun doesn’t always work.

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  11. I disagree that ‘their’ is wrong or inappropriate or only used by people out of fear. I automatically used it to fill the blank without shuddering or hesitation. I have a better acquaintance with the English language than most people, having studied Old English, Middle English and Linguistics. Language change is a fact of life, people. It’s a sign of a living, vibrant functional entity.

    Trying to hang onto outdated grammatical forms is unhelpful and ultimately a losing battle. Use of the plural as a gender neutral alternative is the least clumsy or offensive and the easiest to adjust to alternative. Pick your battles. Instead of just fighting against any and all changes to language, try to maintain the standards which are important, which to my mind are those which avoid ambiguity. Language is for communication, that is its primary and most important role.

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    1. I sort of agree. The “their” solution is pretty expedient and has good models in other languages. I just flinch a little at the sound of it sometimes, the same way you flinch sometimes to hear a person sing an in-tune variant on a song whose melody you’ve grown used to over time.

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  12. I was all set to post about how language constantly evolves and knotrune beat me to it!! .

    Use of gender neutral language is not about so-called political correctness – there are perfectly clear and logical reasons for not assigning gender. It’s not just a question of inaccuracy in many cases, but it also continues to perpetuate societal stereotypes.

    I say this as a former grammar nerd, who refused to start a sentence with a preposition (eg And, But) and who probably now over-uses that technique. Similarly in my youth I insisted on someone who chaired a meeting being called a chairman – and now, the most popular post on one of my blogs is where I discuss terminology in exactly that situation. (And I don’t recommend chairman)

    Is it ok to link back to this post? as I do enjoy posting about gender specific – or non-specific language, and it’s obviously one that a lot of people are interested in.

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    1. I think that to make this work, you’d have to replace “a person” with “you” as well. It then becomes a less formal statement, but at least one that’s internally grammatically consistent.

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  13. Or, you can embrace the use of a gender neutral pronoun that was introduced to the English language about a decade ago: ze and zer. Now you’re being trans and queer inclusive! 😀

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