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.

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