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shameless pleading

Epicene pronouns

The Epicene Epic

Dear Word Detective: I am the editor of a healthcare magazine. Often I come across a phrase such as “Every doctor should have HIS own pager.” Short of reconstructing such sentences to read “All doctors should have their own pagers,” what would you do? — Theresa Falzone.

Well, I’d take two aspirin and stop making “health care” into one word, that’s what I’d do. Seriously, though, you may not realize it (judging by the innocent manner in which you pose the question), but you have stepped smack into the middle of one of the hairiest (and hoariest) debates among English-language grammarians. The question of “his/her/their/him/her/them,” also known as the “genderless” or “epicene” pronoun debate, has been raging for decades and shows no sign of abating in the near future.

The whole ruckus boils down to one devilishly simple question: what pronoun should one use when the noun referred to (“doctor” in your example) could be either male or female? The “Old School” solution was to use a universal “him” or “his” in this situation, but one need not be a militant feminist to find this practice exclusionary and unsatisfactory. If I had a small daughter, I would not want her reading books full of that sort of “hims.”

Generations of both professional and amateur grammarians have doggedly attempted to settle the question of gender and pronouns, so far with little success. Sprinkling “him/her” and “his/her” through every paragraph is awkward and annoying and, consequently, is favored as a solution only by awkward and annoying writers. There have been hundreds of attempts to invent new, gender-free pronouns along the lines of “hie,” “hir,” “shim” and similar bizarre concoctions. None of these, thank heavens, has caught on with the general public, and should you find yourself reading a book which depends on such inventions, you’d be well-advised to toss it out the nearest window.

So what, you ask, is my solution? Tune in next time, when I’ll settle this question once and for all. Or maybe not.


Last time out, we started to consider the problem of the epicene (or “gender-free”) pronoun. If you’re still reading after that first sentence, you must either really like this column or be trapped in a stuck elevator with nothing else to read. Well, keep reading, because there’s a good chance that your blood pressure is about to rise dramatically.

To cut to the chase, the reader’s question that started all this was: what do you use instead of “his” in sentences such as “Every doctor should have his own pager,” when the doctor may well not be a “him”? The solution, in my view, is what 99 percent of all English-speakers already quite naturally use when faced with this situation in real life — “their” (and “them” and “they,” as the context requires). “Every doctor should have their own pager” is correct.

Now, before you all crank up your typewriters and e-mail programs to let me know what a treasonous barbarian I have revealed myself to be, consider three points. First, the use of the normally plural “their” to refer to a singular noun (“doctor” in this case) was common in English until the late 18th century. Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Anthony Trollope, Walt Whitman and George Bernard Shaw, among other literary luminaries, all used this construction. It was only when self-appointed Victorian grammar reformers decided very late in the game that English should be modeled on the structure of classical Latin that the “singular their” was banned.

Secondly, as explained by linguist Steven Pinker in his book “The Language Instinct” (HarperCollins, 1994), “doctor” and “their” in our sample sentence aren’t really an antecedent noun and its pronoun — they are a “quantifier” and a “bound variable,” respectively, and don’t have to agree in number. Pinker’s explanation of the difference is lucid, fascinating, and much too long to go into here, so buy go the book. Yes, it’s in paperback.

Lastly, there simply is no other solution acceptable to the vast numbers of people who actually speak the English language. The re-emergence of this use of “their” is natural, logical, and confuses no one. It is not sloppiness and it is not ignorance. It is a positive example of our language evolving to encompass a new social awareness, in this case the somewhat belated recognition that not everyone enjoys being referred to as “him.” The defense rests.


3 comments to Epicene pronouns

  • Stan Cook

    This was a truly interesting article. I have been looking something like this for a long time. I agree with your solution. Any other solution would require teaching a “vast number” of people how to use the new pronoun. I recently found, after asking around, that english grammer is almost an elective subject in todays high schools. Therfore, we would have teach our children what a pronoun is and how it is used then explain what the new pronoun is all about.

    I enjoy all of your articles and I learn a lot about my mother language.

  • Hello! My name is Steve Walker. I am a speech scientist and an architectural linguist. At my school Summit Language Services, Inc. (whose headquarters is in Yokohama, Japan) I regularly use a very effective epicene pronoun.

    1. The base form of this pronoun is “kee”– with inflected forms kee, kerm, kerms, and kermself. These allomorphs are my coinages. I have coined them in response to the need for a pronoun to replace “he or she” or “they” in sentences such as:
    “If someone calls me, tell them I will call them back.“or “If someone calls me, tell him or her that
    I will call him or her back. Here we are talking about a pronoun that does not refer to the gender of the referent — that is, an epicene pronoun. There have been many efforts to create such a morpheme. With my Jingles background, it is easy for me to create a winner – beause I simply allowed the England-based English community phonome to generate it. Here is how I did it: Since “he” comes from the abdomen (hiy) and “she” comes from the mouth itself (shiy), I deduced that a gender neutral expression for these allomorphs of he/she should be a fricative coming from the area of the soft palate or uvula xiy. However, since x is not a phoneme of English, the velar stop k should be used instead – thus leading to the epicene pronoun “kee’ (pronounced kiy). So kee came to be the nominative case singular gender neutral equivalent of “he or she”. Since “he” goes to “him” and “she” to “her” in the accusative case, then “kerm” (a blend of “him” and “her”) would follow. The final result is the paradigm:
    he/she becomes kee; him/her becomes kerm;
    his/her becomes kerm; himself/herself becomes
    kermself; his/hers becomes kerms.
    Using kee/kerm/kermself/kerms is so phonetically on target that its use can be mastered in seconds by a native speaker of English. The above problematic sentences are problematic no more: “If someone calls me, tell kerm that I will call kerm back.” And just try saying the following sentence using he/she or they/them! “If someone feels that kee is being discriminated against by someone else, rather than taking it upon kermself to seek out a lawyer, kee can merely tell the person who is bothering kerm to look at kerm face in the mirror and try to imagine how kee looks to the person whose feelings kee has hurt – and to compare them to kerms in the event that kee were to be discriminated against in a similar manner!

    2. Here is a sample of kee in action (taken from my school’s instructor training manual):
    “A deep awareness of TM/rm distinctions will not only increase the client’s rate of progress, but will protect kerm health as kee learns how to avoid voice abuse or bad practice habits when doing kerm Jingles.”

    It is my pleasure and privilege to introduce this much needed morpheme to the world.

    Thank you,
    Steve Walker
    speech scientist
    architectural linguist
    Jingles creator

  • Ken Tager

    I would have indeed have taken up my typewriter to rail against what initially appears to be a bow to convenience. I know, however, from years of reading your columns that you do your homework, rendering your imprimatur just shy of Fowler’s. Also, I don’t know where my typewriter is any more.

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