Monday Morning Grammar: Pronouns Part V—Gender, Plus “They” as a Gender-Neutral Singular Pronoun

As discussed over the last couple of weeks, pronouns, like nouns, have four properties—number, person, gender, and case—and should agree with their antecedents in number, person, and gender. We’ve already talked about how pronouns agree with their antecedents in number and person, and so far it’s been pretty straightforward. Gender agreement, too, seems obvious, but a sticky point arises that raises hackles from Twitter to the New York Times.

Of the three points of view, only third-person pronouns express the gender (he, she, him, her, his, and hers) of their antecedents:

This weekend, I saw Julie & Julia with my friend Sandra. She and I decided to make the film’s signature dish, boeuf bourguignon.

Sandra was going to the farmers market on Saturday morning, so I gave her a shopping list that included carrots, onions, and mushrooms.

This next point is pretty basic, but Chicago thinks it’s worth mentioning, so I will, too. Make sure that possessive pronouns take the gender of the possessor, not who or what is being possessed:

We decided to throw a last-minute dinner party, so Sarah invited her friend P.T. and his fiancée Lisa.

If a pronoun refers to antecedents of different genders that are connected by and, use a plural pronoun:

P.T. and Lisa couldn’t make it to the dinner party, however, and sent their apologies.

However, if a pronoun refers to one of the antecedents of different genders connect by and, apply the gender of the referent noun:

P.T. and Lisa couldn’t make it to the dinner party because he had to drop her off at the airport that night.

This is all just common sense.

His or Her and They

It gets tricky—and controversial—when antecedents of different genders or unspecified genders are joined by or or nor.

Neither Joey nor Elizabeth came because ______ couldn’t change ______ plans on such short notice.

Traditionally, the blanks above would be filled by he and his, but many readers and writers today find this solution sexist and/or misleading:

Neither Joey nor Elizabeth came because he couldn’t change his plans on such short notice.

Using the gender of the closest antecedent can also be misleading:

Neither Joey nor Elizabeth came because she couldn’t change her plans on such short notice.

What’s grammatically correct in this case some readers and writers find awkward:

Neither Joey nor Elizabeth came because he or she couldn’t change his or her plans on such short notice.

Some writers abbreviate he or she to he/she or s/he, but Chicago advises against it. These alternatives are probably okay in everyday writing, but I’d avoid it in business or other formal writing.

Others have addressed the sexism issue by alternating their use of he and she, but this can get really confusing:

Neither Joey nor Elizabeth came because he couldn’t change her plans on such short notice.

There’s a pretty strong movement to adopt them as an accepted gender-neutral singular pronoun:

Neither Joey nor Elizabeth came because they couldn’t change their plans on such short notice.

A paper no less esteemed than the Gray Lady herself advocated this solution, citing historical precedent, and progressive grammarian Grammar Girl is “a firm believer that someday they will be the acceptable choice for this situation.”

However, I just can’t condone it. If you do use them as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, however carefully reasoned and justified your decision, to a reader, it may look like a mistake, threatening your credibility with him or her. The best solution is to rewrite the offending sentence if you can, often simply by making the antecedent plural:

To readers, it may look like a mistake, threatening your credibility with them.

Do you have a question about pronouns? Let me know, and I’ll include it in a future installment of Mots Justes’ ongoing series.

The Mots Justes Series on Pronouns

Part I—The Basics

Part II—Location, Location, Location

Part III—Number

Part IV—Person

Resources

Chicago Manual of Style, The. 15th ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Fogarty, Mignon, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 2008.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Monday Morning Grammar: Pronouns Part V—Gender, Plus “They” as a Gender-Neutral Singular Pronoun

  1. John

    Hi,

    I’m trying to locate information on this common type of grammatical error, but do not know what the technical term for it is: Jack, he went up the hill. Jill, she came tumbling after.

    Thanks for your help.

  2. I agree; rewriting the sentence is always preferable to straggling into Awkward Pronoun Land. You also have a good point about threatening credibility with readers.

    However, if it absolutely can’t be avoided, I support using “them” and “their” simply because I find “him or her” and “his or her” cumbersome.

  3. Thanks for this post! I wanted to tweet it, but found that URL shorteners seem to have a problem with a title that contains quotation marks. 😦

  4. Please ignore my last post. It’s not the quotation marks that seems to give bit.ly grief, but the dash. I’m going to look through your Twitterfeed and use your URLs instead. 🙂

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