Here are some good tips about a common grammar problem.  I’ve borrowed, in its entirety, from WordPress’s Daily Post blog.  It’s called “They” by Daryl L.L. Houston.


Consider the following sentence:

A person who does not read this blog regularly may find that ____ grammar suffers.

Now fill in the blank with the appropriate pronoun. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll unflinchingly fill the blank with “his.” If you lean leftish sociopolitically, you’re more likely to provide “her” (or to alternate between “his” and “her” when using such sentences). If the thought of filling in that blank fills you with uncertainty or even dread, maybe you’d supply “their,” which makes the grammar nerds squirm.

The dilemma here is that English does not have a widely accepted gender-neutral pronoun. Historically, we’ve defaulted to the masculine pronouns, but that’s become politically incorrect; on the other hand, defaulting always to the feminine pronoun can be patronizing. I suppose we could use the gender-neutral “its,” but that leads to ambiguity (in the sentence above, would the “its” refer to the person or the blog?) and is awfully dehumanizing. I want to be ok with allowing “they” and “their” to serve as gender-neutral third-person pronouns (I believe this is how some other languages do it), but I have trouble putting aside my grammar alarm and doing it in practice.

Bryan A. Garner, whom I’ll keep citing post after post, suggests that you can often write around the problem by rephrasing things (see the entry on “sexism” if you’re following along in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage). He proposes the following fixes (most of this is direct quotation):

  • Delete the pronoun reference altogether. E.g. “Every manager should read memoranda as soon as they are delivered to him by a mail clerk.” Just strike out “to him” in this case.
  • Change the pronoun to an article. E.g.: “An author may adopt any of the following dictionaries in preparing his manuscript.” Replace “his” with  ”a.”
  • Pluralize, so that “he” becomes “they.” E.g.: “A student should avoid engaging in any activities that might bring discredit to his school.” Rewrite as follows: “Students should avoid engaging in any activities that might bring discredit to their school.”
  • Use the relative pronoun “who,” especially when the generic “he” follows an “if.” E.g.: “If a student cannot use standard English, he cannot be expected to master the nuances of the literature assigned in this course.” Rewrite as follows: “A student who cannot use standard English cannot be expected to master the nuances of the literature assigned in this course.”

So there you have it, a few tricks a person may use for getting around the issue if he/she/it/they is/are so inclined.

Thanks to author Daryl L.L. Houston for these good tips, and to The Daily Post at WordPress for making it available to all of us.


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HarpWorks Writing Services offers writing, editing, grant writing, publicity, and research to the commercial and not-for-profit sectors, and to individuals. Owner Stephanie Harp has more than 25 years of experience in journalism, public relations, arts administration, and creative writing, and is a professionally trained researcher, interviewer, and historian.
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