||This article is written like a personal reflection or opinion essay rather than an encyclopedic description of the subject. (December 2007)|
English has a number of epicene general words, such as person, anyone, everyone, and no one, but it has no gender-neutral singular personal pronouns. Instead, we have he, she, and it. The traditional approach has been to use the masculine pronouns he and him to cover all persons, male and female alike. That this practice has come under increasing attack has caused the single most difficult problem in the realm of sexist language.
The inadequacy of the English language in this respect becomes apparent in many sentences in which the generic masculine pronoun sits uneasily. Lawyers seem to force it into the oddest contexts—e.g.: "If a testator fails to provide by will for his surviving spouse [a she?] who married the testator after the execution of the will, the omitted spouse shall receive the same share of the estate he [i.e., the spouse] would have received if the decedent left no will" (Unif. Probate Code, 1989).
three makeshifts: first, as anybody can see for himself or herself; second, as anybody can see for themselves; and third, as anybody can see for himself. No one who can help it chooses the first; it is correct, and is sometimes necessary, but it is so clumsy as to be ridiculous except when explicitness is urgent, and it usually sounds like a bit of pedantic humour. The second is the popular solution; it sets the literary man's [!] teeth on edge, and he exerts himself to give the same meaning in some entirely different way if he is not prepared to risk the third, which is here recommended. It involves the convention (statutory in the interpretation of documents) that where the matter of sex is not conspicuous or important the masculine form shall be allowed to represent a person instead of a man, or say a man (homo) instead of a man (vir).--Modern English Usage.
At least two other makeshifts are now available. The first is commonly used by American academics: as anybody can see for herself. Such phrases are often alternated with those containing masculine pronouns, or, in some writing, appear uniformly. Whether this phraseology will someday stop sounding strange to most readers only time will tell. This is one possibility, however, of: (1) maintaining a grammatical construction; and (2) avoiding the awkwardness of alternatives such as himself or herself.
But the method carries two risks. First, unintended connotations may in vade the writing. In the 1980s, a novel was published in two versions, one using generic masculine pronouns and the other using generic feminine pronouns; the effects on readers of the two versions were reported to have been startlingly different in ways far too complex for discussion here. Second, this makeshift is likely to do a disservice to women in the long run, for it would probably be adopted only by a small minority of writers: the rest would continue with the generic masculine pronoun.
A second new makeshift has entered Canadian legislation: as anybody can see for themself; if a judge decides to recuse themself. (Donald L. Revell et al., " 'Themself' and Nonsexist Style in Canadian Legislative Drafting," 10 English Today 10 (1994).) The word themself fills the need for a gender-neutral reflexive pronoun, but many readers and writers—especially Americans—bristle at the sight or the sound of it. Thus, for the legal writer, this make-shift carries a considerable risk of distracting readers.
Typographical gimmickry may once have served a political purpose, but it should be avoided as an answer to the problem. Tricks such as s/he, he/she, and she/he—and even the gloriously misbegotten double entendre,s/he/it—are trendy, ugly, distracting, and often unpronounceable. If we must have alternatives, he or she is the furthest we should go.
Sometimes this gets quite out of hand. But it's rare to see such an example as this: "If a child is not corrected when he/she first misspells a word, by the time he/she is in eighth grade, the errors are so ingrained they are never even noticed…. I think it is a disservice to the child to let him/her go along for seven years and then tell him/her that the spelling is all wrong" (Ariz. Republic/Phoenix Gaz.). What about letting him/her go seven years using he/she and him/her, when reasonable readers will think that he/she is off his/her rocker?
For the persuasive writer—for whom credibility is all—the writer's point of view matters less than the reader's. Thus, if one is writing for an unknown or a broad readership, the only course that does not risk damaging one's credibility is to write around the problem. For this purpose, every writer ought to have available a repertoire of methods to avoid the generic masculine pronoun. No single method is sufficient. Thus, in a given context, one might consider doing any of the following:
- Delete the pronoun reference altogether, e.g., "Every manager should read memoranda as soon as they are delivered to him [delete to him] by a mail clerk."
- Change the pronoun to an article, such as a or the. E.g.: "An author may adopt any of the following dictionaries in preparing his [read a] manuscript."
- Pluralize, so that he becomes they. E.g.: "A student should avoid engaging in any activities that might bring discredit to his school." (Read: 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." (Read: A student who cannot use standard English cannot be expected to master the nuances of the literature assigned in this course.)
- Repeat the noun instead of using a pronoun, especially when the two are separated by several words. E.g.: "When considering a manuscript for publication, the editor should evaluate the suitability of both the subject matter and the writing style. In particular, he [read the editor]…."
Though the masculine singular personal pronoun may survive awhile longer as a generic term, it will probably be displaced ultimately by they, which is coming to be used alternatively as singular or plural. This usage is becoming commonplace—for example:
- Anyone who has subscribed to the Literary Review for more than one year may join, as long as they are proposed by a writer known to the committee.--Sunday Times (London)
- It is assumed that, if someone is put under enough pressure, they will tell the truth, or the truth will emerge despite the teller.--Robin T. Lakoff, Talking Power: The Politics of Language in Our Lives, 1990
- Anyone planning a dissertation on Hollywood's fling with yuppie demonology will want to include 'The Temp' in their calculations" (New York Times).
Speakers of American English resist this development more than speakers of British English, in which the indeterminate they is already more or less standard. That it sets many literate Americans' teeth on edge is an unfortunate setback to what promises to be the ultimate solution to the problem.