A weblog by Will Fitzgerald

Third person singular human

It has often been noted that English is deficient because it lacks a third-person pronoun that can refer to any person, without respect to sexual gender. Although some claim that “he” can refer to anyone in sentences like (1), most linguists agree that maleness is much more salient in these cases than a generic sense.

(1) Everyone should do his own work.

There are at least six common solutions proposed:

  1. Use he or she (or she or he). (Everyone should do his or her own work.) This includes everyone, but at the cost of more words.
  2. Use impersonal they. (Everyone should do their own work.). This includes everyone, and there is ample practice (both contemporary and historic) to support its use, but the plural sense is still somewhat salient.
  3. Use she. (Everyone should do her own work.) This “makes it fairer” by compensating for past male pronoun use, but the femaleness is even more salient (the ‘female’ tending to be more marked than the ‘male’–and, of course, some will say this is the point). I see this frequently in philosophical writing, sometimes combined with a strategy for alternating between ‘he’ and ‘she.’
  4. Use a newly invented term, such as e and ir. (Everyone should do ir own work.) This potentially solves the problem, but has never caught on; nor do I suspect it will.
  5. Assert forcefully that ‘he’ includes ‘she’ and deny there is a problem. (Everyone should do his own work.) This is just wishful thinking.
  6. Rewrite to remove the generic construction. (Our motto should be: Do your own work! or You should do your own work.) This is nothing wrong with this solution; it takes more effort, though, and sometimes the result is awkward. (Work must be done only by the person who is responsible for said work.—Is that awkward enough to prove my point?

I had the mad idea last night of another solution: Start using he/him/his to only refer to the generic third person, and invent a new series of pronouns for male references (for example, e/im/is). At one grammatical swoop, we fix all the generic third person problems, and force saliency on the marked gender case (Everyone should do his own work./Each girl should do her own work./Each boy should do is own work.). This solution is no more likely to achieve consensus than (4) above. But just in case the English Academy dictates this use, I want credit for inventing the Fitzgerald pronoun.


5 responses to “Third person singular human

  1. Brendan O'Connor June 30, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    Ursula le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness features gender-neutral characters, and there’s an afterword where she tries rewriting a few paragraphs to use “e” (or one of the other invented 3rd person singulars). It’s really awkward.

    I think “they” is the most practical everyday solution.

  2. Brendan O'Connor June 30, 2009 at 12:41 pm

    or, i’ve always wanted to try rén (人) when talking to bilingual english/mandarin chinese speakers. pretty jarring to throw that in to english sentences though.

  3. R. L. Vaughn August 7, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    Loved or hated, “‘he’ includes ‘she'” is still technically correct according to the English I studied. But I’m probably behind the times. “Everyone should do his or her own work” — I use this fairly often, and surely we can afford two more words adding 5 more letters and two more spaces on most occasions.
    “Everyone should do their own work” — isn’t that grammatically incorrect?

  4. Gretchen Erhardt December 5, 2009 at 10:49 pm

    These days, high school juniors are expected to know–by intuition?–that they shouldn’t write, “Everyone should do their own work.” But I don’t know where they’d learn that, except on willwhim or in the venerable ELEMENTS OF STYLE. Certainly not at school.

    A few months ago, one intrepid teen from Harper Creek high school proposed se and ser, comparable to e, im, and er. I think the Fitzgerald Pronoun is the best solution though, because it puts Cockney squarely on the map of the King’s English. East End Londoners will be the happiest, and adopt it without effort; all they’ll have to learn is how to say “h” for the generic, while the rest of us struggle to copy their effortless masculine pronouns.

    • Clarissa March 25, 2012 at 3:45 am

      My stepfather and I used to argue this when I was a teenager. He used to love to deliberately say things like “Everyone keep his eyes peeled” in the car, when the four people in the car were he, my mother, me, and my sister. He used to LOVE that one male in the group made the whole group male-sounding.

      When I lived at Twin Oaks in the early 80s, there was an effort to use the made-up third person pronoun ‘co.’ I was theoretically willing and even happy to use a new neutral form, but never liked the hard C and long O sound of it, and couldn’t bring myself to use it. Plus, I was pragmatic, I want to use something that has a chance of being adopted. For years I (defiantly) used ‘they,’ to my mother’s grammatical consternation. Now I guess I just avoid the sentence structure. In writing, I sometimes use ‘s/he.’

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