|San José State University|
& Tornado Alley
Nongender Pronouns for Persons
English, like most of the languages of the world, has some open and some closed parts-of-speech categories. The categories of nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs are open. English has adopted innumerable loan words from other languages. It even accomodates alien forms of formation of plurals; e.g. radius and radii, datum and data, spectrum and spectra. But the categories of pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and determinatives are closed. There does not seem to be much need for new prepositions or determinatives. There is a need for a word to designate and and or, but English readers seem to accept the occasional use of and/or.
The crying need is for a nongender pronoun to use instead of he or she. There have been several suggested. For example, in the Linguistic Department at U.C.-Berkeley some twenty years ago there was an attempt to promote ee as a replacement for he or she. Nothing came of it.
There would of course also have to be a replacement for her or him. Oddly enough such a replacement did develop spontaneous several centuries ago. It was their used singularly. For example, A new applicant should submit their completed application at Window B.
There is written evidence of such use of a singular their going back to the late 14th century. The first written instance of the condemnation of the singular their came in 1795. Thus for about four centuries the singular their was accepted as proper English. And it was and still is proper English. It was a natural adaptation by speakers of English of a way to represent a nongender attribution. The grammarians of the 18th, steeped as they were in Latin grammar, decided in was not logical and therefore wrong. By the 20th century these proscriptive grammarians had convinced the general public that the singular their and other singular forms of they, such as themselves, were bad English. However, saying that their, which refers to the third person plural cannot have other uses is no more valid than saying that the second person singular you cannot logically also refer to the second person plural.
There are numerous examples of well known writers using the singular their. Notably Jane Austin, in her novels. But also Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Defoe, Dickens, Stevenson, Fielding, Scott, Lewis Carroll, Whitman, Shaw, Wilde, Kipling, Orwell and many more authors use the singular their in their works.
The alternate method for referring to a person possibly of either sex was always to use the masculine pronoun. This often was acceptable, particular when the gender of the antecent of the pronoun probably was masculine. But there are times when it produces ridiculous statements such as: "Abortion is a matter to dealt with by a patient and his doctor."
So the proscriptive grammarians and their Latinized version of English grammar killed the use of the singular their and left the English-speaking public with only the awkward he or she and him or her, or is it she or he and her or him.
HOME PAGE OF Thayer Watkins