Third person singular human

June 23rd, 2009 | by Will |

It has often been noted that English is deficient because it lacks a third-person pronoun that can refer to any person, without respect to sexual gender. Although some claim that “he” can refer to anyone in sentences like (1), most linguists agree that maleness is much more salient in these cases than a generic sense.

(1) Everyone should do his own work.

There are at least six common solutions proposed:

  1. Use he or she (or she or he). (Everyone should do his or her own work.) This includes everyone, but at the cost of more words.
  2. Use impersonal they. (Everyone should do their own work.). This includes everyone, and there is ample practice (both contemporary and historic) to support its use, but the plural sense is still somewhat salient.
  3. Use she. (Everyone should do her own work.) This “makes it fairer” by compensating for past male pronoun use, but the femaleness is even more salient (the ‘female’ tending to be more marked than the ‘male’–and, of course, some will say this is the point). I see this frequently in philosophical writing, sometimes combined with a strategy for alternating between ‘he’ and ’she.’
  4. Use a newly invented term, such as e and ir. (Everyone should do ir own work.) This potentially solves the problem, but has never caught on; nor do I suspect it will.
  5. Assert forcefully that ‘he’ includes ’she’ and deny there is a problem. (Everyone should do his own work.) This is just wishful thinking.
  6. Rewrite to remove the generic construction. (Our motto should be: Do your own work! or You should do your own work.) This is nothing wrong with this solution; it takes more effort, though, and sometimes the result is awkward. (Work must be done only by the person who is responsible for said work.—Is that awkward enough to prove my point?

I had the mad idea last night of another solution: Start using he/him/his to only refer to the generic third person, and invent a new series of pronouns for male references (for example, e/im/is). At one grammatical swoop, we fix all the generic third person problems, and force saliency on the marked gender case (Everyone should do his own work./Each girl should do her own work./Each boy should do is own work.). This solution is no more likely to achieve consensus than (4) above. But just in case the English Academy dictates this use, I want credit for inventing the Fitzgerald pronoun.

  1. 3 Responses to “Third person singular human”

  2. By Brendan O'Connor on Jun 30, 2009 | Reply

    Ursula le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness features gender-neutral characters, and there’s an afterword where she tries rewriting a few paragraphs to use “e” (or one of the other invented 3rd person singulars). It’s really awkward.

    I think “they” is the most practical everyday solution.

  3. By Brendan O'Connor on Jun 30, 2009 | Reply

    or, i’ve always wanted to try rén (人) when talking to bilingual english/mandarin chinese speakers. pretty jarring to throw that in to english sentences though.

  4. By R. L. Vaughn on Aug 7, 2009 | Reply

    Loved or hated, “‘he’ includes ’she’” is still technically correct according to the English I studied. But I’m probably behind the times. “Everyone should do his or her own work” — I use this fairly often, and surely we can afford two more words adding 5 more letters and two more spaces on most occasions.
    “Everyone should do their own work” — isn’t that grammatically incorrect?

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.