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Gender-Neutral Writing: The Pronoun Problem

   

For most of us reared in the 1970s and 1980s, with Ms. magazine, All in the Family reruns and the spread of political correctness, gender-neutral writing is a no-brainer. We don’t automatically refer to people 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 in earlier decades learned different lessons. What’s more, all of us, regardless of age, are influenced by the 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, one of two on gender-neutral writing, focuses on the grammatical side of the issue.

Working around the pronoun gap

Loving English is like loving your family: you have to accept a lot of flaws and peculiarities. One of the most enduring is the lack of a gender-inclusive singular pronoun that can complete a sentence like this:

  • Each writer should develop underline black own techniques for avoiding bias in writing.

We have he and she, which are singular but gender-specific; we have it, which is singular but not used for people (at least not in polite discourse); and we have they, which is gender-inclusive but plural. That leaves us with … nothing. There is no singular personal pronoun that encompasses both genders, and attempts to introduce one (among the hopefuls: thon, hes, zhe, hu) have fizzled as fast as the average infomercial diet.

English writers, being nothing if not resourceful, have developed a number of workarounds for sentences like the one above. The norm until the final quarter of the twentieth century was to use his, but because of the sexism inherent in preferring the masculine, that approach is now shunned.

  • Use a plural antecedent.

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

  • Eliminate the pronoun.

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

  • Switch to first person, second person or imperative.

    We should develop our own techniques for avoiding bias in writing.
    You should develop your own techniques for avoiding bias in writing.
    Work to develop your own techniques for avoiding bias in writing.

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

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

The singular they

Absent from the list above is the option exercised most frequently by English speakers, and increasingly by English writers, though some still fret over the matter:

  • 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;
  • It’s equally fine in general writing;

BUT

  • It’s still avoided by some, especially in formal writing.

In the "singular they" war, the antagonists used to divide into the permissive linguists and usage gurus on one side, and the traditionalist grammarians and copy editors on the other. No more. Editorially conservative publications like the Washington Post have accepted the singular they, which was voted 2015 Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society. Nowadays, even persnickety editors and language professionals are fine with the construction if it sounds natural, if no other approaches work well and if it’s a way of avoiding the clunky he or she.

Here’s a rundown of where some current sources stand on using the singular they (ST) in formal writing.

In favour

  • Copyediting newsletter (“Singular They, Them, Their, and …” and articles linked to therein, https://www.copyediting.com/singular-they-them-their-and/): This well-respected publication and website for U.S. copy editors notes that ST has reached a tipping point in its acceptability.
  • Fowler’s Modern English Usage (4th ed., 2015): Approves ST with few apologies or caveats, citing Oxford English Dictionary, which tracks ST from sixteenth century on. Says of ST: “The process now seems irreversible.”
  • Justice Canada ("Gender-neutral language," http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/csj-sjc/legis-redact/legistics/p1p15.html): Presents ST as first option for dealing with troublesome agreement like that in the sentence above.
  • Law Society of British Columbia ("Respectful Language Guideline," Appendix A, http://www.lawsociety.bc.ca/page.cfm?cid=1005&t=Respectful-Language-Guideline): 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.

Against

  • Practical Grammar: A Canadian Writer’s Resource (3rd ed., 2014): Presents ST as an error in formal English.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style: Recommended ST in 14th edition 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.)
  • Yahoo! Style Guide ("Write gender-neutral copy," http://styleguide.yahoo.com/writing/be-inclusive-write-world/write-gender-neutral-copy): Calls ST "a grammatically controversial usage that could provoke criticism." Suggests avoiding it by using other tactics.

Wishy-washy

  • Canadian Press Stylebook (17th ed., 2013): Under "Sexism" advises rewording to avoid his or her and adds: "As a last resort, they (them, their) is an increasingly acceptable alternative to he (him, his)." For or against? It’s hard to tell.
  • Editing Canadian English (3rd ed., 2015): Acknowledges that ST has always existed in informal speech and notes its use in informal writing “as a way to circumvent using he or she . . . ” The descriptor “informal” suggests unease about accepting the practice in formal writing.
  • Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed., 2016): Says in "Sexism" that ST promises to become the ultimate solution to the agreement and gender problem. But then warns 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."
  • Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage (2nd ed., 2007): In entry for everyone, everybody suggests, through overall tone and emphasis on ST’s history pre–eighteenth century, that the practice is okay. But says that most usage guides "evade the question of what to do in formal writing"—as does this guide itself.

Some thoughts from your author

I spent my first twenty years as a copy editor and grammar instructor avoiding the singular they and counselling against it in formal writing. Now I’m a convert.

For one thing, many of my clients have shifted to more conversational writing, especially for their online material, and the singular they suits their tone. Further, I agree with Fowler’s and Garner’s that the trend toward the construction is irreversible, and I’m willing to change with the times. But I’m willing not because it’s easier to cave than to stand strong (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. In a concise and readable account in the New York Times Magazine (July 26, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/26/magazine/26FOB-onlanguage-t.html), Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman explain that 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 practice that had been natural and accepted, 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 half a century ago, an error: early grammarians labelled it as such with little heed for natural English.

Another argument is that we, in western society at least, are questioning the notion of gender as binary. If individuals don’t identify with being a she or a he, what are we to do—deny those people a pronoun? Of course not. They is an elegant choice.

A final argument, one I’ve not yet encountered outside my own mind, concerns the similarity between singular 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. (class is singular)
  • The class have wasted two hours arguing over the characteristics of proper footwear. They simply cannot agree. (class is plural)

I can’t help but wonder: if collective nouns can change their number according to their meaning, why can’t indefinite pronouns, such as 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 into this "sometimes singular, sometimes plural" category. If it can change, why not the other indefinites?

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