“Lindsey Brown also commented on their wall post.”
What? Whose wall post? Shouldn’t it say “Lindsey Brown also commented on her wall post”? Yes, it should. But Mark Zuckerberg and the rest of the crew at Facebook have run into the same problem a lot of us often run into: English doesn’t have a gender-neutral, singular personal pronoun. If you’re not a grammar junkie, let me break down that term for you:
“gender-neutral” = not specifically male or female
“singular” = just one
“personal” = refers to a person, not a thing
“pronoun” = a little word that takes the place of a noun and often refers to people
We didn’t have this problem back in the day when it was okay to refer to everyone as a male. Authors were free to use “he,” “him,” and “his” to their hearts’ content, regardless of whom they were talking about: man, woman, or child. Eventually, though, someone had the gumption to point out that not all humans are males.
A good observation, but now we don’t know what to say when we talk about a single, unspecified person. “Every person who came through the glass doors had ___ head down, avoiding eye contact with the sinister doorman.” We can say “his head,” but then we run the risk of being misogynistic. We can say “her head,” but readers will be confused because they are not used to seeing female pronouns as the default. We can do what most people do and say “their head,” but then we’ve made a grammatical faux pas. Why? Because “their” is plural (refers to more than one), and “person” is singular.
There is a movement, accepted in some circles, to make “they” and “their” okay to use when talking about a single hypothetical person. Actually, lots of authors have been doing that for a long time. Unfortunately, the singular “they” has not yet become correct mainstream grammar and still has many opponents. As Mignon Fogarty, the Grammar Girl, says, “…use they if you feel bold and are prepared to defend yourself” (Fogarty, 2006).
If this whole dilemma is news to you, you are probably one of the millions who throw around plural pronouns all the time and are blissfully unaware that somewhere, some grammar freak is judging you. Of course, you are free to continue that. However, if you are writing for an audience of grammar freaks (professors, department heads, scientific journal editors) and would like to begin using some acceptable alternatives, consider the following:
Pluralize. If you can, change the singular noun (that would be “person” in the example above) to a plural noun. Then you can use a plural pronoun, which, in English, all happen to be gender-neutral. Our sentence now becomes “All the people who came through the glass doors had their heads down, avoiding eye contact with the sinister doorman.”
Pick a sex. If you justify why you are using one gender or the other, readers are less likely to get offended or confused. Sometimes this requires imparting more significance to a sentence than you originally intended. For example, changing the sentence to “Every man who came through the glass doors had his head down, avoiding eye contact with the sinister doorman,” says more than the original sentence (why would the men avoid eye contact and not the women?). But if you can work that more meaningful, more interesting sentence in with the rest of your story, all the better.
Rephrase. Sometimes it’s feasible to rewrite the sentence in such a way that the only pronouns in it refer to someone specific. By making the doorman the subject, we can avoid assigning a pronoun to the people walking through the door: “The sinister doorman didn’t receive so much as a glance from any of the hundreds of people who walked through his glass doors each day.” This is another one that requires you to commit to inflating the meaning of the sentence.
Alternate sexes. One approach that is becoming more popular in nonfiction works is to alternate between male and female pronouns by paragraph, section, or chapter. In a new employee handbook, for example, section 1.1 might state the rules using “she,” “her,” and “hers,” and section 1.2 might state the rules using “he,” “him,” and “his.” This approach doesn’t really work in fictional narrative like our example sentence, since those pronouns refer to specific (though imaginary) people rather than hypothetical people. I should also note that Amy Einsohn, whose opinion is well-researched and should be respected, criticizes this technique as confusing (Einsohn 2006, p. 414).
“His or her.” My least favorite, yet somehow the most common: inserting “he or she,” “him or her,” “his or hers,” or even “s/he” everywhere a singular pronoun is required. While this technically solves the grammatical issues, it is cumbersome to write and even more cumbersome to read. Do it when required by law, your boss, or your own lack of creativity. Otherwise, avoid it.
Repeat the noun. You can be super-correct, super-accurate, and super-obnoxious by repeating the word or name a pronoun would refer to and not using any pronouns. “Every person who came through the glass doors had that person’s head down, avoiding eye contact with the sinister doorman.” Or, for the Facebook programmers, “Lindsey Brown also commented on Lindsey Brown’s wall post.” As you can see, this is another solution that should be used only in extreme circumstances.
Neuter. We feel bad when we accidentally refer to someone’s baby as an “it,” so naturally we shouldn’t refer to grown people as “it”s just to ease our grammatical conscience. If your audience is not the PETA board of directors, however, and you run into the singular pronoun problem when talking about cocker spaniels, it’s probably okay to use “it” if the grammatical context calls for, well, it.
For a thorough discussion of this issue and several other options for rephrasing tricky sentences to avoid having to use a gender-neutral, singular personal pronoun, see pages 412–414 of Amy Einsohn’s fabulous The Copyeditor’s Handbook.
The Spanish language has a beautiful little word that allows writers to be accurate, bias-free, and eloquent all at the same time: su. Su is a gender-neutral pronoun that can be either singular or plural, impersonal or personal.
“Carrie Stallings just posted a link to a new article on su wall.” Try that, Mark.
Einsohn, Amy. 2006. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Fogarty, Mignon. 2006. “Generic Singular Pronouns.” Grammar Girl: Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/he-they-generic-personal-pronoun.aspx.