By Bill Moore
Everyone should be sure of the rules when they use an indefinite pronoun. Or, maybe, everyone should be sure of the rules when he uses an indefinite pronoun. Or else, when he or she uses.. . And thats the problem. For many years, the Mavens of Grammar have stated , unequivocally, that indefinite pronouns (that includes all the pronouns with -one, -body, and -thing at the end as well as either, neither, and each) are always singular and, therefore must always be mated with singular definite pronouns like he, she, his, and hers and never with the plural forms they or their.
Take the sentence, Everyone above the level of department manager has his own parking space. Simple enough. Meaning clear. Except that it indicates that everyone in the company is male. If thats true, fine, but what if its not? How do you avoid incipient sexism when some of the managers are women? Grammar purists oversimplify it. They state, categorically: Everyonemeaning every single oneis singular, therefore, you use a singular pronoun. Since the gender neutral pronoun form is male; his, the correct construction is, Everyone knows his place. That would be fine if it served the purpose of clear communication. But it doesnt, first of all because in this brave new century it would be hard to find many who would say that he is gender neutralespecially if youre writing about an all-girl baseball team. On the girls team, everyone knew his place, just sounds silly.
OK, then, the grammar purists will say, the way to avoid the problem is to avoid indefinite pronouns all together. Write instead, All employees above the level of department manager have their own parking spaces. There. Problem solved. Except it isnt because the solution is based on a faulty premise. Who said that indefinite pronouns are always singular? There are those among us who believe that everybody indicates a large group of bodies, all the bodies, rather than every single body. Others of us will argue that they is just as good a gender neutral pronoun as he. Whos to say? Well, you could check with Jane Austin, Will Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, or the King James Bible just to name a few of the dozens who share this latter opinion.
In fact, the singular their construction goes back about 700 years and managed to co-exist with the neuter masculine construction for most of that time. Nobody seemed to be much concerned until late in the 1700s or early 1800s. Thats when the prescriptive grammarians began to attack in earnest because singular their didnt fit with the logic of the Latin grammar they were forcing English into. So, it became bad grammar in the same arbitrary way that splitting infinitives and putting a preposition at the end of a phrase did.
The situation is getting a lot of attention currently. There are whole Web sites that address almost nothing else. Each of them contains definitive proof of the validity of its particular position. Unfortunately, the proofs from the various sites prove opposing opinions. And even though theres been considerable progress in the last decade or so in loosening the rule, theres been very little agreement on a standard usage. Teachers, editors, and proofreaders still disagree. Grammatical experts disagree among themselves. Noted literary figures disagreesometimes even with themselves. So, the onus still falls on the writer (and as its a particularly large onus, that can be pretty painful).
By the way, if you plan to take the his/her route, be careful. In formal writing, a lot of editors dont like this construction. Even in informal writing, it can be taken as either laziness or lack of a clear understanding of grammar. If you have to go this way, at least use his or her. Its still a waffle, but it shows that the reader has a choice. And please dont use his and her. That only makes sense if you intend to indicate that there are two people.
Sorry to have to say this, but if youve read this far hoping Id give you a definitive solution to the problem, youre going to be disappointed. I dont know the answer either, but Ill tell you how I handle it. I do what the situation calls for. If the writing assignment is for someone who insists on strict adherence to correct usage, I use a singular pronounmale or female as the sense of the sentence calls forwith an indefinite pronoun. If Im writing for someone who wants the copy to read more like the way people speak, I use a plural form where it fits and a singular masculine or feminine pronoun where it makes the most sense. When I can get away with it, I avoid the problem and use a plural construction. When youre writing for others to read, whether for pleasure or profit, it becomes a situation where everyone has to decide which course to take for (his, her, their, his/her, his or her) self (selves).
About the Author: Bill Moore is the author of Write Rite Right. This compendium of homophones, homonyms, and frequently misapplied words is a necessary resource for anyone who writes for others to read. (Available on
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for more information on words and writing. Bill is a freelance trainer, researcher, and technical writer with over 30 years professional experience. To discuss writing services, contact him at bill_moore@WriteRiteRight.com