Grammar Moment: Non-Sexist Pronoun Reference
It occurs to me that it has been a very long time since I last posted a Grammar Moment, and that kind of lapse is unconscionable in someone who has officially been named a Grammar Goddess. So, in spite of the calling of NaNo, I must put up a grammar post, however brief.
First, a quick bit of background: Pronouns must match (agree with) the words they refer to. If the word referred to (technically known as an antecedent, but I’m not going to quiz you on the technical terms) is singular, the pronoun is singular. If the antecedent is plural, the pronoun is plural.
The pronoun they, and its relatives them and their, are plural. Thus they cannot be used to refer to a singular noun. Thus, the following sentence is an atrocity:
A student should keep their backpack neat.
You simply must not use the plural their to refer to the singular student. Back in the old days, the solution was simple. In all cases, the masculine singular was used whenever the gender of the student was unknown:
A student should keep his backpack neat.
Nice and tidy, until somewhere around 1970, s0mebody noticed that about half of the human race was not male. Some options were attempted, such as the following:
A student should keep his/her backpack neat.
Well, it sort of works, but it’s awkward, especially if you read it aloud. My husband, a technical writer who works with engineers, who like efficiency and use that slash construction a lot, invented his own all-purpose pronoun to make fun of slash-itis: s/he/it. If you want to know how it’s pronounced … well, he’s from Texas.
For a more pronounceable, if wordier, option, there’s this one:
A student should keep his or her backpack neat.
This is quite reasonable. I use it often myself, in shorter pieces of writing. But if you have a longer piece, that extra verbiage can get burdensome. So what to do? The key is that it is a longer piece – you give both genders equal time. In one paragraph, you use his, and then in the next, you use her. Or you flip a coin for each paragraph. Or you can use what a teacher of mine once called the “subtle feminist agenda”: Use the feminine when the connotation is positive, and the masculine when the connotation is negative:
A good driver keeps her car well tuned. A bad driver slacks on his maintenance.
Of course, there is also another way to avoid having the plural they trying to be a gender-neutral singular pronoun, and that’s by not asking it to try to be singular in the first place. Rewrite the sentence so that what the they refers to is actually plural:
Students should keep their backpacks neat.
Wow! Miracle of miracles, now you don’t have to worry about whether the students are male or female. They can be either, or both, and you’re not violating any rules of grammar or of political correctness. Sure, once in a while, you’re going to have a situation in which you have to have the singular, but in the vast majority of cases, you should easily be able to rewrite everything to plural. Gee, isn’t that simple?