It vs. He/She vs. They

(For those of you who don’t know, this is Cousin Itt from the Addams Family. :-D)

My boss gave me an awesome article about pronouns and how English does not have a gender-neutral singular pronoun. It’s been a problem that has annoyed grammar-junkies everywhere. In typical conversation, these things don’t matter–and we’ll use the plural “they” as a gender neutral singular noun. In writing, this becomes problematic. You can’t use a plural pronoun to replace a singular noun. But then again, you also don’t want to omit a gender. So what do we do? How do we know what to use?

Why You Need These Words

In an academic paper, you do not want to use the first person point of view or second person point of view (unless you are given permission to do so). This omits words like “I, me, we, our”; which are first person; and “you, your”; which are second person. That leaves us with third person. There is a plethora of third person words, such as “someone,” “everyone,” “everybody,” “one,” “a person,” “the reader,” and so on. There are also plural words, such as “people,” “the audience,” and “they.” There are also the gender specific words “he” and “she,” and then we also have the word, “it.”

It

Let’s begin with the last example, “it.” It is a pronoun for singular objects–not people. It would be an insult if you called a person “it.” It would be as if that person doesn’t have the qualities that give him or her the ability to be a human. For example, you would use it for a desk. “The desk was very old and it wobbled a lot.” In English, most (if not all) objects are genderless. In some languages, like Spanish, objects have genders–but in English we have the singular, genderless, it.

He/She and His/Her

These are also singular pronouns. As I’m sure you know, they are gender oriented pronouns. She and Her are feminine, and he and his are masculine. These are pronouns you use when referring to objects with gender (primarily people and animals). Yes, you may use gendered pronouns with animals–even birds and fish. If you can discern by color patterns or whatever else that an animal is male or female, you may use the gendered pronouns. Let’s look at some examples.

“My cat loves to be brushed. She always purrs when she is brushed.” In this case, the she is referring to the cat, who is clearly a female if you look at the pronouns.

“My friend went to buy a new computer since her old one died.” Notice in this case, her is possessive. The computer that “died” belonged to her.

They

Let’s get this straight–they encompasses a group of people, animals, etc. Since a group does not have a specific gender (even if the group is comprised entirely of one gender, the group ITSELF is genderless), they is considered a genderless pronoun. This goes for them and their as well. However, at the end of the day, it’s plural and is still generally unaccepted to use as a singular pronoun. Let’s look at a BAD example:

“Does everyone have their pencil?” Here, their is incorrect. Since “everyone” is singular, you should use “his or her pencil.” It’s a bit irritating, I know, but that’s life. 😀

Now let’s look at a GOOD example!

“Kelly and Chuck have their pencils.” In this case, we are talking about two people who possess pencils. As such, we use their. Notice in this example, and shows that we’re connecting two people (much like 1 + 1). If we had used “or,” we’d be talking about singular pronouns right now!

Final Thoughts

As much as many of us would LIKE a genderless, single pronoun, we currently don’t really have one. English is a hard thing to change and it usually takes quite a bit of time to change. Maybe someday, in the future, we’ll be lucky enough to have a singular pronoun that is genderless, but for the time being we don’t. Ask yourself when you’re writing if you’re discussing a singular or plural and you should be well on your way to gendered pronoun success. Good luck!

Posted in Grammar Quick Fix.

2 Comments

  1. English does have a means of addressing gender when unsure, or dealing with a group of individuals of mixed genders, the generic masculine. In your earlier example “Does everyone have their pencil?”, the grammatically correct way to relate this is through the generic masculine “Does everyone have his pencil?”.

    It sounds awkward, some may call it sexist, but that’s the structure of the language.

    • But it’s important to keep in mind that English is constantly changing–we no longer use “thee” or “thine” and, similarly, there is now an increasing trend in moving away from the generic masculine form. To simply state that it is “the structure of the language” is belittling a significant movement in English language writers. I understand the desire to stick the the classical form, but you cannot neglect new forms entirely.

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