What do you do when you don’t know if your reader is a he or a she? Your correspondent remembers the good old/bad old days when no one cared. He was assumed to refer to either sex when used as a general pronoun. Such a cavalier attitude will land you in hot water today.
The problem is that English has no gender neutral pronoun, like for example the French on. In 1884, Charles Crozat Converse, an American attorney and composer of church songs (What a Friend We Have in Jesus), proposed a new pronoun: thon, a combination of that and one. Thon didn’t catch on, although it was listed in the Funk and Wagnall’s dictionary as recently as 1964.
So what’s a gal/guy to do? Let’s look at some alternatives.
The pronoun one
One might think the pronoun one would do the trick. One would be wrong:
“The writer has many tools at one’s disposal. For example, one could use plural pronouns in the singular.”
Obviously one doesn’t work to refer to a previous noun.
I’ve noticed several writers alternating between he and she. This works better in longer works where use of the technique becomes clear. One writer even announced upfront that when he spoke of “the writer” and “the reader” he would use opposite genders and then switch with each chapter of the book.
This should be fine for informal emails. But with all the elegance of a packing label it won’t be your first choice in formal writing. Plus it doesn’t help with the accusative case: h/im/er.
Change the referent noun to a plural
This change often does the trick. The paragraph above under “The pronoun one” could read:
“Writers have many tools at their disposal. For example, they can use plural pronouns in the singular.”
Use the singular they
This is my favorite and I’m willing to put money on its winning out over the long haul. Almost no one has a problem with a sentence like “Does everyone have their notebook?”. But there is still resistance when referring to a more specific noun like reader. I saw a style manual from one firm which flatly rejected the singular they.
The singular they is not a feminist invention of the past century. As Steven Pinker* points out, this device has been deployed by writers going back to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Byron, Austen, Shaw and others.
Furthermore, the singular they can be preferred to him or her even when the gender is known. Take this quote from George Bernard Shaw (cited by Pinker):
Caesar: No man goes to battle to be killed.
Cleopatra: But they DO get killed.
Artfully, Shaw’s “no man” refers to the individual soldier, personalising and emphasising the angst, while “they DO get killed” refers to the more generic carnage sure to follow.
So your Wednesday Writer’s advice is to keep all of these techniques at the ready in your tool box and to use your writerly skills in choosing the best tool for each job.
That’s it for today. I hope that any reader of this column who has a question, objection, or observation will leave a comment. I promise to reply to thon.
* Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style, Viking 2014
Bill Lawrence worked in US law firms and multinational companies until 2001. For the past 15 years Bill has been a writing coach at the Polytechnic University’s Centre for Business and Professional English. He has also presented seminars to law firms on coaching lawyers on effective writing.