Saturday, February 16, 2008

His vs "His or hers"

I have just been going through the copy edited version of my next book. Many of the editor's suggested changes are correct and helpful. But I am continually irritated by her practice of replacing almost every "he" by "he or she," and similarly for "his," "him," etc.

I can see only three plausible reasons for the practice. One is that the fact that the person in question might be either male or female is important to what you are saying, and so should be emphasized. Thus in one passage, where the point I was making was that you wouldn't know anything about the person--the context was encrypted interaction online--the editor changed "he" to "he or she" and I changed that to "he, she or it." But in most of the text, gender is simply irrelevant--the points I am making would be equally true in a world of all men, all women, or all hermaphrodites.

The second possible reason is that "he or she" is seen as politically correct, thus using it instead of following the traditional practice of letting "he" stand for either male or gender neutral shows the enlightenment of the author. This strikes me as at best silly, at worse conformism at the cost of good writing.

The third reason is that the writer wants to make a political point--that the traditional practice reflects features of the society that writer wishes to criticize. This seems to me a legitimate reason if that happens to be a point that that writer wants to make. But it isn't a point I want to make, and I strongly object to being drafted into someone else's crusade.

That said, I will happily agree that the lack of gender neutral pronouns in English is a problem. With the one exception mentioned above, I have accepted (so far) none of my editor's alterations from "he" to "he or she." To my ear that is not only clumsy--three words instead of one--it is misleading, since it suggests, almost always incorrectly, that there is some particular reason for pointing out that the person in question might be female. What I have done is to look for another way of writing the sentence that works at least as well and avoids raising the question of whether I am talking only about males. Sometimes that is possible, sometimes it is not.

Another possible solution would be to give in to the common practice of using "they" as a gender neutral singular, a practice I abhor. I suspect my editor does too, since she is enough of a grammatical purist to insist on treating "data" as a grammatical plural and to distinguish carefully between "who" and "whom."


Anonymous said...

Tell me about it. In German nouns have a grammatical gender. Words that describe a job etc. differ depending on whether the job is hold by a male or a female person. Some people go as far as using CamelCase to be gender-neutral. For example, the German word for economist is "Ökonom" for a male and "Ökonomin" for a female economist, so the gender neutral usage is "ÖkonomIn". Combine that with "he/she" and "his/hers" and you get unreadable sentences.

Chris Bogart said...

There is some dispute as to how traditional the gender-neutral "he" really is. See this discussion for example:
Language log posting on "they"

It's hard to answer the question of whether a pronoun was or was not traditionally gender-neutral; in a society with more divergent sex roles than we are accustomed to, there may have been fewer cases where a gender-neutral pronoun was even needed.

(That being said, I agree that "he or she" is awkward. I tend to reword things, although I'm not so opposed to the singular "they" -- it's funny logically, I suppose, but it sounds natural to me... and how often does it actually lead to confusion?)

Anonymous said...

Another thing: It seems as if many authors of scholary papers have adopted the policy to exclusivly use "she" instead of "he" or "he/she". I like that solution, since if roughly half the authors exclusively use "he" and the other half uses "she", there's not much to complain about even for those who think that language has a strong influence on thinking.

David Friedman said...

Jan mentions the alternative of always using "she." That avoids the clumsiness of "he or she." But given that "he" has traditionally been used for gender indefinite, using "she" calls attention to itself, at least at first--suggests that there is some reason why the hypothetical person being described shoud be female.

With regard to "they" for gender indefinite, I wasn't arguing that it was a new usage, just that it seems to me an ugly one. I expect plural verbs with plural subjects, so using what appears to be a plural subject with a singular noun jars, as does using a plural noun ("are" rather than "is," for example) when the subject is in fact singular.

Of course, the English language went through the same process with "you" a very long time ago. But I'm so used to "you are" for both singular and plural second person that the failure to use "thou art" for the singular doesn't bother me.

Anonymous said...

There ought to be software that randomly chooses pronoun genders. To avoid confusion, the randomization might be set by heading level, so each section sticks with one gender and a new draw is performed for each section.

Anonymous said...

Use "s/he". Simple.

Seth said...

In (one of) my field(s), cryptography, the standard assumption is that Alice is communicating with Bob (using the obvious pronouns); sometimes Eve(sdropper) is listening in (requiring more care with the feminine pronouns).

If you're writing about general people in a context where you can't make arbitrary assumptions about them, that solution isn't available.

happyjuggler0 said...

Use he/him exclusively in this book, and she/her exclusively in the next book, alternating each book.

Have a "note to readers" page at the begining to the book explaining this.

If you can't bring yourself to do that because using the feminine seems contrived and ruins the readers seemless thought process, then use a "note to readers" page at the begining to the book explaining this instead, and just use he/him.

P.S. (s)he doesn't work for objects.

Anonymous said...

We alternated between he and she (and Alice and Bob) except for a few places where the use of she implicated gender stereotypes. I think it worked out fairly well.

sierra said...

"Use 's/he'. Simple." Better yet: s/he/it! I've long ago concluded proponents of these alternatives have a political agenda and actively hope people will find them distracting. But the underlying assumption should be scrutized: that the weaving of gender markers into the structure of our language has a significant influence on whether we harbor sexist attitudes. Find two otherwise similar nations, one whose language relies on them heavily and one that doesn't, and compare their treatment of women. I believe you could do that in the case of German and Hungarian.

sierra said...

One other suggestion: publish two versions of the same book, one with a "GENDER NEUTRAL EDITION" seal on the front, and one with "SEXIST EDITION," then see which sells better.

Anonymous said...

I don't use "he or she" because it's clunky, and I don't use singular "they" because it's logically incorrect. I rewrite the sentence to dodge the problem when I can, and use "he" when I can't. Sadly, while English does have a gender-neutral singular pronoun, too many people get offended by use of "it", so I don't try that often.

Anonymous said...

I was convinced by Douglas Hofstadter's essay on this point. He wrote, if I recall correctly, that studies had shown that readers were much more likely to imagine that a hypothetical person was male in sentences written with the supposedly gender-neutral "he" -- so much so that they were baffled by riddles where the solution was possible if a hypothetical character was a woman. He took this as evidence that readers' imaginations are constantly seeded with a hypothetical character who is almost always male, leading to a systematic failure on their part to even consider that the the hypothetical person could equally be female. Perhaps the fact that it stands out to you when "she" is used instead of "he" is also evidence of this same phenomenon.

Hofstadter felt that this was likely to contribute to readers' poorly absorbing that what he was writing about was meant to apply to all people, not just men. Sure, readers may know as an abstract fact that "he" is meant to be gender-neutral, but the psychological effect of reading "he", "he", "he" could be that the reader absorbs the writing as true only of, or especially of, men, which is presumably not the intended message, as well as factually wrong.

Therefore, use of the gender neutral pronoun "he" may do a poor job of communicating, despite that it is technically correct. Moreover, I think it is likely that a younger generation of readers are apt to see nothing remarkable about alternation of "she" and "he" as a neutral pronoun. It has reached the point for me that I hardly even notice it, except perhaps when they are mixed in the same sentence to describe the same hypothetical character, e.g. "When a writer makes decisions about what pronouns to use, she should consider the effect on his readers". That still sounds a bit weird to me. But your younger readers are more likely to think you are making some point that's intended exclusively to apply to men if you exclusively use "he", and your writing is probably less likely to be clearly understood to mean what you intended with the passage of time if you cleave to olden usages. Why not surrender to the inevitable now, rather than hold out and risk confusion?

Anonymous said...

I have been a copy editor for close to twenty years, and I deal with pronoun gender issues all the time. Nearly every academic publisher I have dealt with, and nearly every academic style guide I have read, finds the use of "he" as a gender-neutral pronoun objectionable and calls for avoiding it. It's not an arbitrary decision by this particular copy editor; it's a house style of the publisher that the copy editor works for. I was trained to do the same thing when I was working for Academic Press's journal division.

Now, I'm familiar with the distinctive usage of game theorists where player A is "he" and player B is "she," and in a game theory or economics article that used that trick, I would ask the publisher if I could let it through, or just let it through and note it on my style sheet. But it would have to be noted as an exception, or the publisher might complain about my work. (For that matter, authors in some fields have internalized it so far that I've edited books on classics where ancient Greek and Roman leaders—who certainly were male—were referred to with gender-neutral forms, which I changed and queried.)

Changing to "he or she," on the other hand, is not recommended in most style guides; the usual recommendation is either to change to a plural subject that can then be called "they," or to reword so that pronouns are not needed. "He or she" is, as you note, awkward and stylistically horrible, especially when repeated several times in a paragraph.

On the third hand, I personally prefer the use of singular "they." It has been invented over and over again, by generation after generation of small children perplexed by "what if the person who comes to the door is a girl?"—and generation after generation of schoolteachers have trained them out of it. And while as a copy editor I'm an unashamed prescriptive grammarian, in this case what I say is laissez faire! Singular "they" obviously is agreeable to the Genius of English. And I can't see any greater illogic in using a plural pronoun to refer to a single person than in using a masculine pronoun to refer to a female person. Just call it "plural, but singular in construction" and move on.

Anonymous said...

Use "s/he". Simple.

Except that there's no way to pronounce it, other than as "she." I expect decent prose to be susceptible to being read aloud.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of what David is saying and I particularly like that he abhors the use of third person plural pronouns to replace singulars. Replacing singular pronouns by plurals always tends to introduce some form of groupist ideas and thought.

I have always solved the gender problem by using the subjective "s/he" and the newly invented gender neutral third person singular objective and possessive pronoun "hir" to replace all instances of "him", "her", "his" and "hers". Now all we need is for some person to invent a new gender neutral subjective form to replace the unpronounceable "s/he".

Daniel A. Nagy said...

Use Hungarian!
Okay, jokes aside, I think that there are many ways to solve this problem. My favorite is assigning a gender early on to the person in question at random (he or she) and if there are more than one of them, then assign gender in an alternating fashion. Typically, ladies first.
Thus, in a communication scenario, the sender is female and the recipient is male.
In an encryption scenario, the one doing the encryption is female (Alice) and the one doing the decryption is male (Bob). The one trying to eavesdrop on the communication is female again (Eve).
In a payment scenario, the payer is female, the recipient of payment is male.
In a legal conflict, the claimant is female, the respondent is male.

Unknown said...

I'm a editor of medical tests who refuses to put my name on any "amount of data," or politically correct "s/he" or singular "they." One writes to communicate, and he who bends his grammar to conform to political correctness communicates to me that I should be reading something else. You are judged by the words you use!

The writers I have to deal with say idiotic things like "to each their own," "a pregnant woman runs the risk of getting toxoplasmosis from their cat" and "when the parents bring the kid in next time, be sure to circumcise them."

The easiest way to solve the problem is to set up scenarios, as the previous commenter suggested.

Arbitrarily assigning pronouns would be idiotic, as then you'd have men giving birth, and other jolting things like female economics prizewinners and chess international grandmasters.

Folks who let political correctness control their grammar are those who have never mastered English, much less a foreign language, and who give no thought to the difficulties a foreigner or a machine translator will have with the s/he/it they put out.

Anonymous said...

Oh, come now. Singular "they" has nothing to do with political correctness.

On the one hand, I've read a fair number of books by feminist writers, going back to when the current feminist movement was new and shiny and in love with invented pronouns. For years and years, they proposed all sorts of newly divised coinages, such as Marge Piercey's "person/per/pers/perself" (which almost sounds like usable English) to "hir" and weirder coinages; but I never saw any of them propose singular "they." Perhaps some of them have started doing so now, but it never was strongly advocated by feminists.

On the other hand, singular "they" has a history in English that can be traced back for many centuries, to long before there was a feminist movement; it was already old when Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women. And it's regularly coined by small children who have no ideological motives and have scarcely heard of feminism. Your objections are based on speculations about linguistic history and linguistic behavior that bear no relation to the facts.

As to logic, there is a standard grammatical term for this sort of logical step: "in construction." For example, consider the sentences "The number of people in the room was 329" and "A large number of people were in the room." The first sentence is actually about the number and takes a singular verb; but the second sentence is about the people and takes a plural verb—and since the grammatical subject is still "number," grammarians say that that word is "singular, but plural in construction." Well, in ordinary spoken English, the word "they" is plural, but can singular in construction. And conversely, in the written English you prefer, the word "he" is masculine, but sometimes feminine in construction. There is also the possibility of having "it" be inanimate, but animate in construction—but in actual linguistic behavior, no one is going to adopt that usage; the animate/inanimate distinction is too strongly marked. In terms of logic, though, defending one as logical and calling the others illogical is just silly.

Patri Friedman said...

I used to think this was a silly argument, until I read Hofstadter's essay, which anonymous mentioned:

Now I think that the use of "he" as the default is something that perpetuates false gender stereotypes. And this is coming from someone who believes there are many true gender stereotypes, I'm not PC.

Also, to me the question of whether current usage is "bad" is quite separate from the question of what the alternatives are, how awkward they are, and whether one should use them. Even if one thinks, as I do, that current conventions are insulting to women, using an awkward new convention is basically contributing to a public good, which one is not obliged to do.

Personally, my favorite solution is to alternately/randomly pick specific genders for the "extras" that populate prose. It requires no extra words, and I find it quite easy to get used to as a reader.

Biomed Tim said...

Thomas Sowell on Writing:

Then there are those copy-editors who are politically correct. They don’t want you to use words like fireman or businessman or even to say that someone mastered a subject, because these are all words deriving from a male-dominated world instead of being “gender neutral.” And of course you cannot refer to someone’s having welshed on a deal or even say that he has a chink in his armor or that there is a nip in the air, because all of these terms are considered ethnically offensive, at least by politically correct copy-editors.

Jonathan said...

I agree with everything you say in your original post. Thanks for expressing it so well.

The correct gender-neutral singular pronoun in English is of course 'it'. If people obstinately refuse to accept that, then I'll have to go on using 'he'. I don't regard 'he' as a satisfactory solution, but the proposed alternatives are worse.

Of course, we're all free to use or abuse the language however we like. Unless we're paid to write by a company with a house style.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the topics I've always thought you've been off-base on - more that you were annoyed that the rule you learned wasn't universally accepted and that no matter what you do, the solution is going to be somewhat unsatisfactory.

The problem has been around in the U.S. for a long time. I've noticed that Mark Twain frequently used "they" and L. Frank Baum universally used "it". I wonder how many other writers of the last two centuries wrestled with the problem?

Jonathan said...

I can add that I am, in fact, paid to write by Hewlett-Packard, a company with a house style. However, the HP house style currently seems silent on the he/she question, no doubt because there's rarely any need in technical documentation to refer to human beings in the third person singular.

Anonymous said...

Those suggesting "it" are way off the mark. That pronoun is never used for people (not even babies) and rarely even for animals that have a clear gender. "It" also applies to things of all kinds, even non-material and conceptual, having no possible gender. Therefore, what is needed is a gender neutral *singular* pronoun that refers to people and gender clear animals. My vote is to use "s/he" and "hir" in writing for this purpose, and I will continue to use those in all my writing.

With respect to the plurality of "you", it is only properly used in dialog writing. If it is used in oration, then it is generally modified in a way that describes the group to which it is meant to apply, as "you all", "you students", etc. So the fact that you is both singular and plural in English is no precedent at all for the use of "they", "them" and "their" also as singulars. As I said in my previous comment, this move from singular pronouns to plural pronouns, both third person and particularly first person is a dangerous trend to groupist thinking rather than remaining true to methodological individualism.

Jonathan said...

'It' is a third-person singular pronoun that is not gender-specific. I'm all too aware that, by convention, it normally refers only to things and not to people. But there seems to me no particular reason for that convention.

'S/he' looks unpronounceable and 'hir' looks like a typo.

sierra said...

Jonathan says: "there's rarely any need in technical documentation to refer to human beings in the third person singular." I disagree; technical books often feature references to the generic "user." It was years ago while working at O'Reilly that I lost patience with this issue. At one point as a compromise there was a policy of alternating male and female pronouns in different paragraphs. I remember copy editing one stretch of text that oscillated so wildly between using 'her' and 'his' that what should have been a clear exposition of the layering of graphical interface elements sounded like some poor woman was having carnal relations with an X Windows dialog box handler, with special emphasis on its 'widget.'

Anonymous said...

Those suggesting "it" are way off the mark. That pronoun is never used for people (not even babies) and rarely even for animals that have a clear gender.

"My sister just had a baby."
"Is it a boy or a girl?"

It seems to me that "it" is used occasionally for unknown gender, but not for unspecified (the more common case, where the referrent certainly has a gender but we don't care which).

Anonymous said...

Scenario is the best solution. Often enough, you use an example that is obviously only a special case to illustrate a more general concept. It will not be hard for the reader to understand, therefore, that your choice of gender in one particular example scenario was completely random, and it could just as easily have been the other gender. Once a gender has been randomly assigned, you can use grammatically correct and intuitive language, and all confusion is avoided.

In a manual: "Let's say Alice is trying to do X."

Anonymous said...

So the fact that you is both singular and plural in English is no precedent at all for the use of "they", "them" and "their" also as singulars.

Why do we need a precedent? We have centuries of precedent, not for a parallel usage, but for the usage of "they" as a singular. My Oxford Unabridged gives a date of 1526 for its oldest citation. Later citations include Fielding, Chesterfield, Whewell, Bagehot, and Ruskin, all from the era of classical English prose.

'It' is a third-person singular pronoun that is not gender-specific. I'm all too aware that, by convention, it normally refers only to things and not to people.

It's not strictly correct to say that "it" is not gender specific. English has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Neuter is not a larger category that includes masculine and feminine; it is a distinct category. Compare Dutch, which has two genders, neuter and common (common is a larger category that includes masculine and feminine, which no longer exist separately), or various Australian languages that have four genders, masculine, feminine, neuter, and edible. Using "it" to refer to an entity that could be male or female requires exactly the same kind of stretch of logic as using "he" to refer to an entity that could be female—because a person is +animate and "it" normally conveys -animate.

And if you're going to approve of stretches of logic, what's the problem with the stretch that refers to a single person as "they"? Go on, explain why treating female as male is more logical than treating one as many. At the very least, anyone who complains that using "they" for a single person represents a collectivization of thought is not in a good position to argue that using "he" for a female person represents sexist assumptions: the two share the common premise that grammar represents unconscious ideology.

Anonymous said...

As a postscript, my Webster's Collegiate has citations to Shakespeare, Austen, Auden, Thackeray, and Shaw, all well known for their linguistic insensitivity and their adherence to a radical feminist and collectivist agenda, right?

Max Lybbert said...

I don't like any of the avant-garde invented words. Personlly I use "he" as that's how English is. When I speak Portuguese or Spanish I use the gender appropriate to the word even if it's somewhat sexist; because that's how Portuguese and Spanish are.

The easiest way to dodge is to make the sentence plural and then use "they." "A person trying to invent words to show how non-sexist he is doesn't impress too many people"/"People trying to invent words to show haw non-sexist they are don't impress others."

Jonathan said...

letmespellitoutforyou says: "technical books often feature references to the generic user."

Not the ones written by me. I repeat, there's no need for this. It's much simpler to talk directly to the reader and address him or her as "you".

"Connect this to that, click the funny button, and when you've finished you'll see this on the screen." Not a sexist word in sight.

I also agree with max: sometimes when you need to use the third person, putting everything in the plural can simplify matters.

William's invention of a neutral gender in English is a new one on me. I think this is a figment of his own imagination.

I agree that using 'he' as a neutral pronoun is unsound; so is using 'they' as a singular pronoun. But, while there is some traditional support for both unsound practices, at least there's more traditional support for 'he'. Personally, I'd rather use 'it' than either.

Anonymous said...

I agree that English doesn't have a neuter gender (and has male or female genders only in the choice of pronouns, as compared to German and many other languages where you cannot construct a grammatical sentence at all without knowing the gender of the noun), but "it" is not a substitute for "he or she". "It" implies non-personhood, and worse. You might call your neighbor's no-account mutt "it", but you'll call a dog you own and intend to keep "he" or "she" - even though you paid for surgery to neuter it...

I vote for the singular "they" for persons of unknown gender, or where appropriate alternately assign genders and names such as Alice, Bob, and Eve. What I won't tolerate is the editor that changes "he" to "he or she" when it refers to a specific male person.


Beastin said...

Personally I tend to use either the set “they/them/their/theirs/themself” or “he/him/his/himself” when I do not wish to specify gender, though I like alternating sexes for characters in examples (it makes things like cryptography easier to explain). I am also rather tempted by the invented set “e/em/eir/eirs/eirself”.

Anonymous said...

When writing in the third person, one
may use "one" to avoid the use of "he or she".

Anonymous said...

William's invention of a neutral gender in English is a new one on me. I think this is a figment of his own imagination.

I don't see how you figure that. Certainly only pronouns have gender in English; nouns do not. So we have three third person singular pronouns. "He" is masculine, "she" is feminine, and "it" is . . . what, if not neuter? (Not "neutral," which is not the name of a gender in any language I've heard of.)

And the English pronouns correspond perfectly to the categories of a lot of Indo-European languages where gender is much more pervasive. For example, Greek has ho agathos, the good man; he agathe, the good woman; ton agathon, the good thing, and so on for most other adjectives.

My copy of Webster's Collegiate includes the word neuter. Its first meaning is "of, relating to, or constituting the gender that ordinarily includes most words or grammatical forms referring to things classed as neither masculine nor feminine." That strikes me as good enough for everyday use, though a descriptive linguist would get more specific about it.

Sófisti said...

It is right to use the pronoun 'he' to describe an indefinite person of both genders in English, and there is a tradition for it in every Indo-European language, with some exceptions, and in the case of those exceptions it is a novelty of that language.

The reason for this is that in Proto-Indo-European there were two genders originally, one for the living, and one for the dead. Then the living gender developed into a co-gender, and the dead developed into neuter. What happens then is that the co-gender becomes the masculine gender, and a new feminine gender sprouts off from the neuter gender. Therefore the word which refers to an indefinite person is in most I-E languages of the male gender. Or that is the theory I was taught, anyway.

Theories aside one can also examine the Bible. Does Pullum want to say that all references to 'he' in the King James Bible are references only to males? And what about other Germanic languages which use a male pronoun for both genders, as English did when it said that se wæs Hroþgare?

Anyway, this vehement stance towards the pronoun he seems to be brought about purely by anti-sexist orthodoxy. What people should remember is that it does not matter what people like Pullum say, in terms of the semantics of the language, but rather what the people themselves say. If you are using it to refer to a gender-indefinite person then that is what the word means. People sometimes like to forget that.

Max Lybbert said...

/* When writing in the third person, one
may use "one" to avoid the use of "he or she".

Yeah, I never really liked that phrasing. It usually sounds too awkward for me.

Anonymous said...

Anyway, this vehement stance towards the pronoun he seems to be brought about purely by anti-sexist orthodoxy. What people should remember is that it does not matter what people like Pullum say, in terms of the semantics of the language, but rather what the people themselves say. If you are using it to refer to a gender-indefinite person then that is what the word means. People sometimes like to forget that.

The attribution to anti-sexist orthodoxy strikes me as sheer nonsense. The OED and Webster's have quotations by all sorts of classic writers who were around before the term "sexism" was coined, going back to the sixteenth century; they can hardly have been motivated that way. Note too that in the spoken English vernacular, the use of singular "they" is commonplace. Other motives than political ideology must account for this usage.

It is in any case just as good an example of "what the people say" as the use of "he" to include women is. If you appeal to custom and usage as your authority, it must be actual custom and usage, and not the custom and usage only of books that have been written and/or copy edited by people who have been taught the rule you are advocating. That's a biased sample, and reliance on it is a kind of circular argument.

As to what does motivate the use of singular "they," I attribute it to a sense of conceptual incongruity at the use of "he" for indefinite gender.

Each word has both a prototypic meaning and a periphery of meanings more or less related to the prototype. (I believe Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things discusses this idea.) The prototypic referent of "he" is a single human male. The prototypic referent of "they" is a group of human beings, either male or female or both. The prototypic referent of "it" is a single inanimate object. Now, consider the sentence, "If anyone asks for me, have X wait in my office." What word properly fills the slot X? If we assume that the person will of course be male, then "he" is a perfect fit. But if we think, "But the visitor might be a woman," then we have a choice of incongruities: we can refer to a hypothetical woman as male, or as plural, or as inanimate. As a matter of observed fact, many English speakers find the second incongruity smaller than the first and third. And that kind of inchoate sense of incongruity is one of the forces that shape the actual evolution of language, prior to its being formalized by grammatical rules.

And of course you can be prescriptivist and demand that the established official usage be maintained. But the established official usage was itself an arbitrary selection made in an era when common usage included both generic "he" and singular "they," an attempt to repress the variety of English speech. There was never any necessity for it; we have a perfectly good grammatical definition for what is going on with singular "they"—plural, but singular in construction. It was much like the grammarians who insisted that you cannot end sentences with prepositions, even though there are at least two places where it is grammatically regular to do so in vernacular English.

Now, of course, we have feminism to make us more sensitive to cognitive incongruities involving sex. But in addition, we have an increasing number of women in occupational and other roles that used to be exclusively or predominantly masculine—we might even have one in the presidency this time next year!—due partly to the actual success of feminism and partly to ongoing social changes that made feminism more appealing without necessarily arising from it. It's more likely that, if a generic person appears in a certain situation, that person might be female instead of male. So the cognitive incongruity is more in the forefront of our minds than it used to be.

If there were no way of dealing with this other than by painfully elaborate periphrasis, or the use of newly coined gender-neutral pronouns, it might not be worth struggling with. But in fact, there is a centuries-old English usage that every native English speaker understands perfectly well, that completely resolves the problem. All the grammarians need to do is stop trying to prohibit it, and accept it as correct English. Laissez faire.

Say it with me. "Plural, but singular in construction."

Anonymous said...

Interesting, in my native language, we would actually say "A large number of people was in the room." and I would have done the same in English before reading about this.

Anonymous said...

The problem is intractable. But there are a few reasonable solutions.

1. You can sometimes change the referent to a plural noun, and then use "they".

2. If you are writing about 2 types of gender-irrelevant people, you can make one male and one female. If both are male, there is sometimes an ambiguity about which one "he" refers to. But having a he and a she solves this problem.

3. letmespellitoutforyou suggested using "s/he/it!". I like the exclamation point --- it emphasizes the pronounality of the word. However, lots of things are now webbed, and in HTML, the slashes might be misinterpreted as a sign for an escaped character. So just to be safe, you really need to double the slashes. And just to be sure that this does get confused with a UNIX regular expression and then get interpreted, one ought to put the whole thing in single quotes. So the preferred first-person singular gender-neutral HTML-compliant non-interpreted pronoun is 's//he//it!'

David Friedman said...

For anyone still curious:

I have now finished going through the copy-edited manuscript. I used some version of "he or she" about half a dozen times, when I thought the fact that the person in question might be either male or female was actually significant. I have rewritten to eliminate the problem perhaps (I'm guessing) twenty times. I have used "she" for one character and "he" for another once--but the main reason wasn't to distinguish them but because the "she" was an ex-marine officer turned novelist, and I was thinking of a real example.

I have retained "he" as the gender indefinite many times, seeing no better alternative.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, in my native language, we would actually say "A large number of people was in the room." and I would have done the same in English before reading about this.

I edit a lot of papers by foreign authors. (Science is international, you know.) I regularly have to fix this one. I can tell you that in the English I speak and write, "A large number of people was in the room" is definitely not idiomatic. In fact, when I was teaching grammar to other employees of my last employer, I offered "the number of people in the room was more than 300"/"a large number of people were in the room" to illustrate the point of usage—and not one of a few dozen students ever had a moment's difficulty with it.

Anonymous said...

the "she" was an ex-marine officer turned novelist, and I was thinking of a real example

When I read that description, I think "Elizabeth Moon?"

Steve_Roberts said...

'He' is correct for a person of unknown gender. 'They' is less correct but accceptable. It is wrong to reword simply to avoid 'he' or 'they'. Actualy the core problem is the copy editor and / or [Hmm, another tricky issue being the lack of and 'inclusive or' conjunction, how do you handle,that issue, professor ?] publisher's style guide seeking to impose bad style, presumably as some feminist agenda. As author you should make sure it's their money they are wasting on this nonesense, not yours.

BTW, have you considered ditching the publisher and going to print-on-demand ?

David Friedman said...

1. William correctly identifies the ex-marine novelist.

2. I have concluded that the problem is probably the fault of the publisher's style manual, not the copy editor--she was too mechanical about it. Editing material inside quotations, on the other hand, is surely her fault.

3. I am unlikely to go to self-publishing/print on demand anytime soon for any book I can get commercially published. Publishers still play an important role as filters, and that will probably continue to be true for a while.

Jonathan said...

Language seems to evolve in perverse ways. We used to have a singular second-person pronoun, but we ditched it and used the plural instead. As a result, if we want a definitely-plural pronoun we now have to use "all of you" or "you all".

If we start using "they" as a singular pronoun, I suppose the next step will be to bring in "they all" when we want a definitely-plural version of it.

It's a shame that we can't really get away with using "it" because people associate it so firmly with inanimate objects. My point here is that there's no need for this association: if someone waved a magic wand and removed this prejudice from people's minds, then "it" would be perfectly usable for a person of unspecified sex, and I think there would be no problem at all.

The only problem with "he" is that some people these days seem to regard the word as exclusively masculine. If you accept that "man" can mean either "male human" or "humanity in general", then you should be able to accept that "he" can mean either "male person" or "person". It's somewhat ambiguous, which is regrettable, but there are other ambiguities in the language that we tolerate.

Jonathan said...

Referring to the American Heritage Dictionary, 4th edition (the dictionary recommended to writers by Hewlett-Packard), I find it rather unhappy and indecisive on this question.

It takes into account the opinions of a Usage Panel: quite a large number of eminent professional users of English. 37% of the Usage Panel seemed to be happy with 'he'/'his' to refer to someone of indeterminate sex; 46% preferred 'he or she' (etc.); the rest preferred to avoid the issue in some way.

On the use of 'they'/'their' in the singular, 82% of the Panel rejected it in a written context, although they seemed more willing to accept it in informal speech.

Jonathan said...

Rather to my own surprise, I see that the American Heritage Dictionary describes 'it' as "Used of a nonhuman entity; an animate being whose sex is unspecified, unknown, or irrelevant; a group of objects or individuals; an action; or an abstraction."

Examples given include "couldn't find out who it was", in which 'it' is plainly used to refer to an unknown person.

Anonymous said...

2. I have concluded that the problem is probably the fault of the publisher's style manual, not the copy editor--she was too mechanical about it. Editing material inside quotations, on the other hand, is surely her fault.

This is, in my experience, the commonest fault of copy editors—and I speak as a copy editor who has trained other copy editors and monitored and evaluated their work. Copy editors like rules, and they sometimes fail to realize that those rules are context-dependent, or to think about whether a sentence revised by following the rules is unclear or awkward. I believe that the difference between a excellent copy editor and an adequate one is that the adequate copy editor follows the rules rigidly, but the excellent one always considers the intended meaning and whether following the rule will better convey that meaning or will obscure it.

Anonymous said...

It's a shame that we can't really get away with using "it" because people associate it so firmly with inanimate objects. My point here is that there's no need for this association: if someone waved a magic wand and removed this prejudice from people's minds, then "it" would be perfectly usable for a person of unspecified sex, and I think there would be no problem at all.

We have three pronouns in English that might be used for a single person of unknown or unspecified sex: he, it, and they. ("She" is out because the feminine pronoun is more marked than the masculine; using it for a person who might be male will be rejected by many people, some because it suggests a feminist agenda, others because it just sounds wrong.) They are, respectively, +animate +masculine -plural, -animate -plural, and +plural. Each of them thus clashes with an imagined possibly female person on at least one semantic dimension. There is no logical basis for saying that one is superior to the others. The basis for preferring "he" is purely traditional: it's a rule a lot of people were taught at some time.

Disregarding rules issues, though, an attempt to determine a standard style has more chance of success precisely if it goes along with the associations people make with words in existing usage, rather than forcing people to adopt new associations. Now, there are cases where all three of these unsuitable pronouns are used for persons of unspecified sex, as our discussion has established. But "it" is only rarely used that way in the vernacular (is there an example that doesn't involve babies or fetuses?); "he" is more common; "they" is also more common, and is spontaneously adopted for this purpose despite the formal rule about using "he," suggesting that "he" is felt to be incongruous in everyday speech. I tend to think that the potential barrier around "they" is lowest, so to speak.

All of this is prior to any sort of political agenda; it could hardly be otherwise, as all those usages are centuries old and have been followed by well regarded writers. But given that the academic community as a whole does have a feminist agenda, and does not regard generic "he" as acceptable (and I work professionally with academic style manuals that address this point), the three options seem to be elaborate rewriting to avoid the use of singular pronouns, coinage of a neologistic pronoun with common gender, or adoption of singular "they." Of the three, I prefer the last, and I would rather the grammarians made it a recognized rule of English that the plural includes the singular in certain cases—making formal prose conform to ordinary vernacular usage.

Dan Gilles said...

A simpler solution than those that alternate between male and female pronouns: Male writers use he/his, female authors use she/her.

Unknown said...

Or just use "e" so that the reader can add either "h" or "sh" as he or she prefers.

Tibor said...

Noone will probably read this, as this blog post is over 5 years old, but anyway:

I have been puzzled by the use of "they" when it is supposed to refer to a single person. The first time I saw or heard it somewhere, I thought that was a joke or a particularly strange slang. But consider German in which you can call someone either "you" or "they" (and they is a more formal way to do that). As a matter of fact it was used (almost surely because of the german influence) in the Czechoslovakia (and before that in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in the czech lands) until roughly the german expatriation and communist takeover afther the WW2.

Now it sounds odd (or in this case - archaic) to our ears, but it was normal few decades ago. I thing the same it is with singular gender neutral they (instead of he or she or it).

I might add the current practice of this in czech. Actually it is the same as in English -he is the gender neutral, since (hu)man is a masculine gender word in Czech. Also, somewhat like in Latin, we often don't explicitely use the subject in the sentence (we celebrate/laudamus/slavíme), unless there is a reason to stress the subject out for some reason, and so these issues are less common in Czech that they are in English or German (and probably other germanic languages as well). I think other slavic languages are similar in this respect. And Hungarian-Finnish languages apparently actually have a gender neutral word for he/she/it. I wonder how it is in East Asian languages and Arabic.

On a slightly related note:
I wonder which language is the most "mathematical" in the sense that there are almost no contradictions, exceptions to the rules, the least amount of ambiguity (like for example in Czech, double negative is actually correct and it can cause problems sometimes when you want to state something precisely - you have to go around and say it differently, and the mentioned "you" vs "you all" in English is an example of ambiguous language) and also most dense - that it can transfer a piece of information with the (on average over all possible information streams of some constant size) least amount of words. I was told by somebody that that language is actually Latin. Does anyone (as long as anyone is actually reading this :) ) know anything more specific?

And obviously I am only considering "natural" languages, not mathematics and mathematical symbols or designed languages such as esperanto.