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Gender-neutral writing (Part 1): The pronoun problem

Frances Peck
(Language Update, Volume 7, Number 4, 2010, page 11)

For most of us reared in the 1970s and 1980s, with Ms. magazine, All in the Family reruns and political correctness, gender-neutral writing is a no-brainer. We don’t refer to people in general as he and him, and we usually opt for gender-inclusive terms, like police officer instead of policeman. Same goes for our younger colleagues. But those schooled earlier learned different lessons. What’s more, all of us, regardless of age, are influenced by traditional approaches to English grammar and vocabulary that we encounter in material written before sexist language was on the radar (or before there even was radar).

No matter what your field, your workplace writing has to be free from gender bias and stereotyping to be viewed as credible and professional. This article, the first in a two-part series on gender-neutral writing, focuses on the grammatical side of gender neutrality. (The next article will cover usage.)

Working around the pronoun gap

Loving English is like loving your family: you have to accept a lot of flaws and peculiarities along the way. One of the most enduring annoyances of English is the lack of a gender-inclusive singular pronoun to pop into a sentence like the following:

Each writer should develop _____ own tools for avoiding bias in writing.

We have he and she, which are gender-differentiated, and we have it, which isn’t normally used for people, but we have no singular personal pronoun that can do the job. Attempts to introduce one into the language (among the hopefuls: thon, hes, zhe, hu) have fizzled about as fast as the average infomercial diet gimmick.

English writers, being nothing if not resourceful, have developed a number of workarounds for sentences like the one above. One approach, the norm until the last quarter of the 20th century, was to use his, but because of the sexism inherent in preferring the masculine singular, this solution is now considered unacceptable.

Here are the options that modern-day editors turn to in order to maintain both agreement and gender inclusiveness:

  1. Use a plural antecedent

    Individual writers should develop their own tools for avoiding bias in writing.

  2. Rewrite to eliminate the pronoun

    Each writer should develop tools for avoiding bias in writing.

    Each writer should develop some favourite [personal, individual, preferred, etc.] tools for avoiding bias in writing.

  3. Use second person or imperative

    You should develop your own tools for avoiding bias in writing.

    Work to develop your own tools for avoiding bias in writing.

  4. Use his or her (when nothing else works, and if the result isn’t too awkward)

    Each writer should develop his or her own tools for avoiding bias in writing.

The singular they

Glaringly absent from the list above is the option exercised most frequently by English speakers, and fretted over most profusely by English writers:

Each writer should develop their own tools for avoiding bias in writing.

It would be easy to write articles (plural), if not treatises (plural), about the history and acceptability of using they (and related pronouns them, their, theirs, themselves) to refer to singular antecedents. Here’s the Twitter version:

  • The singular they is fine in speech and informal writing;
  • It’s gaining acceptance in formal writing; BUT
  • Authorities are still divided on this last point.

In the singular they war, the antagonists roughly line up with linguists and usage gurus on one side, in favour of the use even in formal writing, and grammarians and copy editors on the other. But this is a generalization. The more you delve into specific texts and authorities, the more difficult it becomes to synthesize the issue. Here’s a rundown of where some current sources stand on using the singular they (ST) in formal writing.

In favour

  • Fowler’s Modern English Usage: Approves ST with few apologies or caveats, citing Oxford English Dictionary, which tracks the singular use from 16th century onward.1
  • Justice Canada: Presents ST as first option for dealing with troublesome agreement like in the sentence above.2
  • Law Society of British Columbia: Finds ST most acceptable when used with “gender-indefinite antecedents” such as any, each, every, and with singular indefinite pronouns such as anyone, everybody, nobody, someone.3

Against

  • Checkmate: A Writing Reference for Canadians: Presents ST as an error in formal English.4
  • Chicago Manual of Style: Recommended embracing ST in 14th edition (section 2.98, note 9) but recanted in 15th and now 16th editions, which both say ST is considered unacceptable in formal writing. (It can’t be coincidental that the relevant sections of both recent editions were written by Bryan Garner; see “Wishy-washy” below.)
  • Copyediting: Deems ST unacceptable in standard and formal writing, though notes its increasing use in informal, conversational material like marketing copy or blogs.5
  • Yahoo! Style Guide: Calls ST “a grammatically controversial usage that could provoke criticism” and that should be avoided by using other tactics.6

Wishy-washy

  • Canadian Oxford Dictionary: Says ST is disputed but increasingly common in written English, where it’s “particularly useful when the sex of the person is unspecified or unknown” and the writer wants to avoid sexism.7
  • Canadian Press Stylebook: Advises rewording to avoid his or her, adding that “as a last resort, they (them, their) is an increasingly acceptable alternative to he (him, his).”8 For or against? It’s hard to tell.
  • Garner’s Modern American Usage: Says in “Sexism” that ST promises to become the ultimate solution to the agreement-gender problem. Says in “ Concord” (B) that the lack of agreement is a “seeming sloppiness” that should be used “cautiously because some people may doubt your literacy.” Throws up hands in “Pronouns” (D): “Disturbing though these developments [in using the ST] may be to purists, they’re irreversible. And nothing that a grammarian says will change them.”9
  • Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage: Suggests, through overall tone and emphasis on undisputed history of ST pre–18th century, that the practice is okay. But states that most usage guides “evade the question of what to do in formal writing”—as does this guide itself.10

Some thoughts from your author

I spent most of my 20-odd years as a copy editor and grammar instructor avoiding the singular they and counselling against it in formal writing. Now I’m wavering.

Some of my clients have shifted to a more conversational style, especially for their online material, and the singular they suits their tone. Further, I agree with Bryan Garner that universal acceptance of the practice is inevitable, and I’m willing to change with the times. But I’m willing not because it’s easier to cave to popular usage than to withstand it (I will never swallow the ungrammatical “feeling badly,” for instance) but because there are sound arguments to consider.

One involves the history of the usage. For centuries the universal English pronoun for singular and plural, masculine and feminine, was they. Then along came Anne Fisher (yes, a woman), who in her 1745 grammar book prescribed he as the pronoun of choice to agree with singular indefinite pronouns.* Suddenly a natural and accepted practice, embraced by authors from Chaucer to Shakespeare (and later Austen), was smeared.

Viewed this way, the singular they may be an “error” in the same way that the split infinitive (or the sentence-ending preposition) was, until a few decades ago, an “error”: early grammarians labelled it as such with little heed for natural English.

Another argument, one I’ve not yet encountered outside my own mind, concerns the similarity between the troublesome indefinite pronouns (e.g., everyone, somebody) and collective nouns (e.g., team, committee, department). It’s a contradictory yet undisputed point of grammar that collective nouns are treated as singular when their meaning is singular, and plural when their meaning is plural:

This class is designed for people at the beginner and intermediate levels. It is not suitable for experienced distance runners. (singular)

The class have wasted two hours arguing over the characteristics of proper footwear. They simply cannot agree. (plural)

I can’t help but wonder: if collective nouns can change their number according to their meaning, why can’t indefinite pronouns like everyone? Like collective nouns, these indefinites convey the sense of more than one, which is why treating them as singular seems unnatural, if not illogical. English has other indefinite pronouns that can be either singular or plural according to meaning (e.g., all, any, some, more, most). In fact, in recent decades we’ve seen the once singular none slide over to this “sometimes singular, sometimes plural” category. If it can change, why not the other indefinites?

I suggest that we are arguing the gender-neutral pronoun problem from the wrong angle. Rather than transforming they into a singular pronoun, an effort that meets with continued resistance, we’d be on more solid grammatical ground if we allowed the singular indefinite pronouns to function as both singular and plural, depending on meaning. Then, when a pronoun like anybody referred to both sexes, we could use the plural they and still respect the rules of agreement.

And that’s my modest proposal for balancing the twin imperatives of grammatical integrity and gender neutrality.

Remark

Back to remark 1* The history of the singular they is widely documented. For a concise and readable account, see Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, “All-Purpose Pronoun,” New York Times Magazine, July 26, 2009.

Sources

  • Back to the note1 R.W. Burchfield (ed.), The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3rd ed. (edition), 1996), entries for “their,” “them” and “they, their, them.”
  • Back to the note2 Justice Canada, “Gender-neutral Language” (2009), http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/dept-min/pub/legis/n15.html.
  • Back to the note3 Law Society of British Columbia, “Respectful Language Guideline” (2007), http://www.lawsociety.bc.ca/practice_support/articles/policy-language.html.
  • Back to the note4 Joanne Buckley, Checkmate: A Writing Reference for Canadians (2nd ed. (edition), 2008), section 10-5A.
  • Back to the note5 Wendalyn Nichols (ed.), Copyediting newsletter, “Tip of the Week,” October 27, 2008.
  • Back to the note6 The Yahoo! Style Guide, “Write gender-neutral copy,” http://styleguide.yahoo.com/writing/be-inclusive-write-world/write-gender-neutral-copy.
  • Back to the note7 Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd ed. (edition), 2004), entry for “they.”
  • Back to the note8 Canadian Press Stylebook (15th ed. (edition), 2008), p. 22.
  • Back to the note9 Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed. (edition), 2009).
  • Back to the note10 Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine, Guide to Canadian English Usage (2nd ed. (edition), 2007), entry for “everyone, everybody.”