gender-neutrality

gender-neutrality
gender-neutrality
1. In English, explicit grammatical gender is chiefly confined to the third-person singular personal pronouns, he, she, it, his, hers, its, etc. From earliest times until about the 1960s it was unquestionably acceptable to use the pronoun he (and him, himself, his) with indefinite reference to denote a person of either sex, especially after indefinite pronouns and determiners such as anybody, anyone, each, every, etc., after gender-neutral nouns such as person, individual, and speaker, and in fixed expressions such as every man for himself and one man one vote. The feminist movement has greatly intensified sensitivities in this area, and alternative devices often have to be found. When a gender-neutral pronoun or determiner (i.e. one that is free of grammatical gender) is needed, the options usually adopted are he or she (or his or her, etc.), or the plural forms they, their, themselves, etc.:

• Each client should take the advice of their estate agent, who will take into account the style of the property, [etc.] —Real Property Guide (Edinburgh), 1995

• Anyone who involves themselves in such issues does so for their own salvation —Big Issue, 1998.

This use of plural pronouns is not new, but a revival of a practice dating from the 16c and common in 19c literature

• (Whenever a person says to you that they are as innocent as can be in all concerning money, look well after your own money, for they are dead certain to collar it, if they can —Dickens, 1853).

Insistence on differentiation can lead to awkwardness in a sentence in which the problem recurs, typically causing the writer to resort finally to convenience at the expense of inconsistency:

• I cannot urge this bargain version too strongly on anyone who loves this work, even if he or she already has another performance in their collection —Gramophone, 1995.

There is also a danger that plurality will run away with the sentence: ☒

• Ultimately someone will lose their lives over this —Edinburgh Herald & Post, 2002.

An alternative strategy is to rephrase the sentence, for example by couching the whole thing in the plural; by this device the last example but one above becomes…on all those who love this work, even if they already have another performance in their collection, although the loss of singular focus can sometimes blur the sense.
2. Artificial devices, including the use of composite forms such as s/he, hesh, wself, etc., have not found general currency, partly because they are difficult to articulate and are only possible in writing. A reflexive pronoun themself is occasionally found and is likely to become more common, but at present it is non-standard:

• It is not an actor pretending to be Reagan or Thatcher, it is, in grotesque form, the person themself —I. Hislop, 1984

• Someone in a neutral mood can devote themself solely to problem solving —Independent, 1995.


Modern English usage. 2014.

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