Pronouns and Sexism

8

A common grammar problem is what we call pronoun/antecedent disagreement. The error looks like this:

  • Everyone wants their dreams to come true.

Do you see the problem? It’s so common, especially in spoken English, that it can be hard to spot. The error lies in the word their. It’s a pronoun — a word that replaces a noun or another pronoun. In this sentence, their replaces everyone, which means that everyone is the antecedent of their. Everyone, however, is a singular pronoun while their is plural. That’s the disagreement part. Pronouns and their antecedents are supposed to be the same in number.

Things get complicated, however, when we try to fix it. There was a day when replacing their with a masculine singular pronoun would be the obvious solution:

  • Everyone wants his dreams to come true.

What’s wrong with this? Many traditionalists will say, “nothing at all.” But contemporary readers are often offended at the use of the masculine pronoun in a setting where the gender is unknown or ambiguous. Why should he replace their and not she? If we are referring to unnamed people who could be either male or female why should he be any more correct than she?  The only answer is, “because that’s the way it’s always been done.” But that’s not a very convincing argument.

Some languages have a universal, non-gender-specific pronoun that can be used when the gender of the antecedent is unknown. English, however, has only two options: masculine pronouns (he, him, his) and feminine pronouns (she, her, hers).

At WriteAtHome, we don’t take a formal stance on this controversy (Really, there are more important things to get worked up about, aren’t there?), but here are some options along with their pros and cons.

Visit WriteAtHome and Check Out Our Online Writing Classes!

Use Both

A common solution to the universal singular pronoun problem is to use both, as in “he or she,” “him or her,” or “his or her.”

  • Everyone wants his or her dreams to come true.
  • When a soldier returns home from war, he or she should be honored.

Pro: This compromise removes the implication of sexism.

Con: This solution is unnecessarily wordy and awkward. Writers tend to dislike the extra syllables. It tends to throw off a sentence’s natural rhythm.

Alternate

Some writers choose to avoid the problem of sexist language by alternately using the masculine and feminine pronouns. They might write,

Everyone wants her dreams to come true.

Everybody wants his life to matter.

Pro: This option is gender-sensitive while avoiding the wordiness of the “he or she” approach.

Con: It can be confusing. Arbitrarily shifting from masculine to feminine can be a distraction to readers who may wonder about the reasons for the change. If they are used to the traditional approach, they will find it strange and awkward.

The Traditional Method

Some writers and editors won’t budge on this one. They see using he/him/his as universal singular pronouns to be the clearest and simplest option. If sexism isn’t intended, they reason, they don’t care if sensitive readers  assume it. It’s simply a convention that serves well and need not be abandoned.

  • Everyone wants his dreams to come true.
  • Everybody wants his life to matter.

Pro: Using the masculine as the universal singular pronoun avoids confusion and awkwardness because it has been the custom for so long.

Con: Reasonably or not, people are often offended by this practice and see it as evidence of sexism. It’s possible that this perception might prejudice readers against you and your writing.

Embrace Numerical Disagreement

Grammar sticklers don’t like this, but increasingly editors are permitting number disagreement between pronoun and antecedent in order to avoid the gender problem. They, them, and their are plural, but they are also non-gender specific and therefore avoid controversy. What makes this the most likely long-term solution is the reality that most English speakers choose this option unconsciously. That’s why sentences like these are so common in  everyday conversation:

  • Everyone wants their dreams to come true.
  • Everybody wants their life to matter.
  • When a soldier returns home from war, they should be honored.

Pros: The problem of gender is avoided. Only grammar nuts even notice the problem.

Con: One grammar problem (gender ambiguity) is simply replaced with another (pronoun/antecedent disagreement).

The Best Solution: Avoid When Possible

As you can see, any approach you choose has its drawbacks. No matter what you do, you’ll end up being wordy, confusing, insensitive, or ungrammatical. Fortunately, for experienced writers, there is usually a way out. It is almost always possible to restructure your sentence to avoid the gender/agreement problem entirely. You just have to think creatively for other ways to word your sentence.

The following examples illustrate several strategies for avoiding the pronoun-gender problem.

  • problem: When a soldier returns from battle (he/she/they) should be honored.
  • solution: When soldiers return from battle, they should be honored.

Here, we just made soldier plural (soldiers). The sentence works just as well and there is no concern for either gender or numerical agreement.

  • problem: Everyone wants (his/her/their) dreams to come true.
  • solution: People want their dreams to come true.
  • or: Everyone hopes that dreams do come true.

Replacing everyone with people communicates the same idea, but allows for a plural pronoun, since people is plural. In the other solution, we just found a way to eliminate the pronoun altogether.

problem:         If anyone parks in the executive lot without a tag, (he/she/they) will be fired.

solution:         Anyone who parks in the executive lot without a tag will be fired.

By changing the first clause, we were able to avoid the need for a pronoun.

problem:         Everyone should buy (his/her) clothes at Wal-Mart.

solution:         Everyone should buy clothes at Wal-Mart.

Sometimes you need to do no more than simply removing the pronoun. In this case, the sentence is perfectly clear without it.

*****

Leave your comments and questions below!

 

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Frederic Durbin
    Frederic Durbin10-31-2012

    No matter how awkward it seems to some, I use “his or her,” “her or his,” “she or he,” “he or she,” and even “s/he.” It seems the best option to me — except, of course, for rewriting to avoid the need for a pronoun. That’s good when possible, but it isn’t always possible.

    Even when writers alternate “his” and “hers,” trying to balance them, I’ve noticed sexism creeping in in some cases. Some writers, when writing a sentence in which the unspecified person is cast in a good light, will use the pronoun of the gender the writer “favors.” When the sentence’s subject is doing something negative, the writer uses the “not favored” gender.

    I think you’re right that, even in writing, our society is quickly settling on “their” — but yes, it’s grating for anyone who has used and loved English for a long time!

    “S/he” — it’s the best solution! A little longer is better than sexist, confusing, or openly irritating to readers — because, as you so often point out, we want them to be focused on the content of our writing, not the style or form!

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko10-31-2012

      I appreciate your perspective, Fred — great to hear from you.

      I’d be fine with something like s/he, but I don’t see it catching on. There will be grammar sticklers who will fight it to the death, but the singular they/them/their is clearly the way American English is going. You just can’t fight the tide of popular usage for very long.

  2. Von
    Von10-31-2012

    Well I, for one, don’t use ‘Ms.’ Both Miss and Mrs. relate to females, so there is no difference there. I think that the thing that is offensive with them is that they refer to her marital status. As a strong proponent of marriage, I appreciate the distinction. I even sometimes use the old form of address for young unmarried men as well.

  3. Brian Wasko
    Brian Wasko10-30-2012

    Thanks Von. I appreciate your point of view — especially the French lesson (I took Spanish in high school). Not sure there’s anything but a semantic difference between saying English has no neutral pronoun but uses the masculine and saying English has a neutral pronoun but it’s the same as the masculine. Either way, the neutral looks masculine. Seems to me also that the easiest thing is to live with it, but seems like we’re being overruled.

  4. Lois
    Lois10-30-2012

    I remember back in the 70’s or so when the title Ms. came out, to be used if you didn’t know the marital status of a woman. About that time someone proposed “shim” or “shis” for a gender neutral singular pronoun. I think the feminist movement had something to do with it, but I can see now that it didn’t catch on…..except the Ms. part.

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko10-30-2012

      Yeah. Lots of people have proposed new words like these. Typically they don’t catch on. Language tends to grow and change organically.

      Ms. is just so convenient. It’s always easier to say Ms. So-and-So than have to guess whether or not she’s married.

  5. Von
    Von10-30-2012

    English has a neutral singular pronoun. The problem is, as with many languages, the singular neutral and the singular masculine have the same form.

    The issue is even clearer in French where, for example, the phrase ‘Il y a’, which means ‘there are (as in, there are apples in the pantry), is literally composed of the words ‘he-there-has’. A group containing all boys is referred to as ‘Ils’. One with all girls as ‘Elles’. And one with both as… ‘Ils’.

    The obvious answer is to live with it. But in today’s politically correct age one doubts anyone will be that logical.

Leave a Reply

If you like a post, please take a second to click "like," and comment as often as you like.
We promise not to correct your grammar!