Archive for September, 2013

A question of grammar … and of political correctness

May I ask you all for some advice?

Given that singular pronouns in English are gender specific when referring to people, which pronoun should one use when one wants to apply it universally, across both genders? For instance:

Each person is entitled to read whatever he wants.

The traditional grammar books consider this correct, the gender-specific “he” standing for all people, male or female. But many would consider this usage sexist. So we may write, equally correctly:

Each person is entitled to read whatever he or she wants.

Correct, yes, but clumsy. I have used this from time to time, but have not been happy with it.

Some would turn the issue on its head, and write:

Each person is entitled to read whatever she wants.

Once again, this is grammatically correct, as there is no law in grammar, as far as I know, that insists that a pronoun applying universally must be masculine. However, I don’t see that this resolves the issue: we are still applying a gender-specific pronoun to cover both genders, and I can’t see that using the feminine rather than the masculine is necessarily an improvement. Also, I must admit that this sort of usage strikes me as overt point-making, and it tends to jar.

One may, of course, evade the issue altogether by changing to the plural:

People are entitled to read whatever they want.

This will do, but it takes away the emphasis on each individual that may have been intended in the original sentence, rather than on people en masse. The two may mean more or less the same thing, but the nuance is altered.

And sometimes, changing to plural is not possible: if we want to speak of “no person”, then “none” or “nobody” or “no-one” is invariably singular:

No-one needs to justify his taste in reading.

I have, I admit, used “their” instead of “his” on such occasions, and it tends to pass unnoticed. (At least, people are too polite to pointit out.) However, pedant that I am, I notice it, and it bothers me.

So what’s the solution? Should we use the plural whenever we can and avoid the issue? Should we modify existing rules of grammar, and admit “no-one” to be plural? I frankly have no idea, but would be interested to know everyone’s thoughts on this.