Welcome back to the GWN blog! Today we have Jim Cort talking about pronouns.

Here’s Jim!

Personal pronouns let you know who’s being referred to: Walter told Judy he would give the giraffe to her.  No question here about who gets the giraffe, because “her” refers to someone of the female gender, and Judy is the only such person mentioned.  That’s the thing about personal pronouns—they’re specific. Gender is one of the details that personal pronouns specify.

Gender is a tricky concept.  Anyone who’s ever studied Spanish or French or German knows that gender in those languages has very little to do with whether your baby blanket was blue or pink.  It’s a way of creating clarity of expression, linking nouns to modifiers with a sort of team colors technique.  In English, gender is about…well, gender.  And that’s where the problem comes in.

Just as there are personal (and therefore specific) pronouns like him and her, he and she, there are also impersonal (that is, general) pronouns.  Not only should he mind his p’s and q’s, she should mind her p’s and q’s as well.  In fact everybody who’s got any p’s or q’s should mind them.  That’s a general statement. When I was a lad in school, Sister Mary Paragraph taught me to say, ”Everyone should mind his p’s and q’s.”  “His” was a stand-in for the singular impersonal pronoun.  That’s what she had been taught when she was a lass in school.

But times change.  Feminist thinkers said using “his” excludes all the females.  It’s sexist; it’s discriminatory. It betrays a male cultural bias that should not be perpetuated.

OK, so what do we do?

This is not a problem in other tongues.  Lots of other languages have a singular impersonal pronoun that’s neither pink nor blue.  In fact, English has one too.  It’s the word one: “Everyone should mind one’s p’s and q’s.”  They use it all the time in England.  Nobody gets offended and everybody knows what’s being talked about.  But on this side of the Atlantic, “one” just never caught on.  It sounds pretentious and highfalutin’ to American ears.

I repeat: OK, so what do we do? We’ve got to come up with something else.  Here are some possible plans:

  • Ignore the whole thing.  Go on using “he” and “his” like nothing ever happened. This will win the approval of traditionalists, but it may get you in trouble with others who are not quite so grammatically-minded.
  • Mix it up.  Use “his” and “him” sometimes, and “hers” and “her” sometimes.  Or do something like this: him/her. This seems cluttered and confusing to me, but some people like it.
  • Use “their” and “them”—that is, use these words as singular impersonal pronouns. Sister Mary Paragraph, God bless her, would tell you this is wrong.  The fact of the matter is, it’s a usage of long standing going all the way back to Shakespeare.  A short list of English authors who have used it would include Jane Austen, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde. The Oxford English Dictionary, Doris Lessing, and the King James Bible.  Somewhere along the way, some nit-picking grammarian said, “You can’t do that—‘them’ and ‘their’ are plural.”  We’ve been living under that rule ever since.

This is a hard sell.  If you go this route, you’ll meet resistance from grammar purists who will insist that “their” and “them” can’t be used in this way.  However, because of the way language works, if enough people adopt this usage, it will become acceptable in time.  It’s your call if you want to join the fight.

The problem with all of these approaches is that they’re likely to attract attention to your method rather than your message.  These approaches can all become distractions.  The careful writer wishes to avoid distractions, so readers will concentrate on the message.  That leaves us with the last possibility.

  • Compromise. If you don’t want to join the fight, and you don’t want to create distractions, you can sidestep this whole mess by recasting your sentence.  Remove the need for a singular impersonal pronoun, like this: “People should mind their p’s and q’s.”  Whenever you need to make a general statement, try to make it in the plural.  Then the problem goes away, and you can devote your attention to more important aspects of your writing.

Jim Cort has been writing since someone invented the pencil. His novel The Lonely Impulse is available from Smashwords:

Cindy here again!

Great post, Jim. I usually try to rewrite my sentences to avoid stuff like this. 🙂



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