‘They’ said so

Pronouns without sex

Whenever anyone who loves language wants to start a robust discussion, they have only to mention “gender-neutral pronouns,” such as “they” in this sentence.

The problem is that “anyone,” an indefinite pronoun, is singular, so it needs that singular verb “loves.” When the sentence gets back to “anyone’s” starting a discussion, a third-person singular pronoun is needed. But English has just three: “him,” “her,” and “it.” Is “anyone” a man? A woman? Since “anyone” is a person, “it” seems wrong, but so does assuming what “anyone’s” sex is.

So, for many years (centuries, even), people have been using “they” as a kind of nonsexist singular pronoun, even though “they” is plural. It seems easier than writing “he or she has only to start …” It used to be common to use “he” to stand in for both men and women, but that’s no longer politically correct. Not to mention, as we noted earlier, the silliness of using “he” when the subject is clearly female, as in an article about The Pill.

Gender-neutral pronouns have been suggested, such as “s/he” or “one,” but none have caught on. Deservedly so.

The battle has grown more heated recently, with many language experts saying it’s time to accept “they” as an acceptable gender-neutral pronoun. (We differentiate between “sex” as a human trait and “gender” as a linguistic one.) The latest issue of Copyediting magazine takes on the topic, with Jonathon Owen, who blogs at arrantpedantry.com, making the case that “they” has been perfectly acceptable since at least Shakespeare, has grammatical precedent, and has few options but twisting sentences into knots. “It’s a natural solution to a vexing problem,” he writes. “If a writer wants to use singular they, why shouldn’t we let them?”

Without taking sides, let’s instead look at ways of “writing around” the problem without twisting sentences into knots. It’s admittedly harder to do in the first sentence in this posting (which gives you a hint where we stand), so we’ll use one using a third-person possessive personal pronoun (“his,” “her,” “its,” “their”).

“Each runner must wear (possessive pronoun here) number prominently displayed.”

If you agree with Owen and so many others, you might write, “Each runner must wear their number prominently displayed.” But the column would end here, and we’re not done.

Many people might write “Each runner must wear his or her number prominently displayed.” That certainly covers the bases (except for transgendered people, who may object to being excluded), but is pretty obviously fixing a “their.”

Others might write: “Each runner must wear a number prominently displayed.” Changing the pronoun to an article often avoids the problem entirely, though some may object, saying that the runner can’t just wear “a” number, but a specific one.

Then there’s “All runners must wear their numbers prominently displayed.” Changing the singular “each runner” allows plurality throughout. It can’t be done in every instance, though.

It could be “All runners’ numbers must be prominently displayed,” but why go passive if you don’t have to?

Bottom line: Most of the time, if you, your bosses, or your audience object to “they” or “their” when the subject is singular, you can write around it. Anyone who can’t needs to recast his, her, its, or their sentence.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,