They Shoot Gender-Nonspecific Pronouns, Don’t They?

Consider this sentence: A good writer must befriend his local bartender.

(This is where Leah will remind us that my opinions don’t represent the company.)

Seriously, sentences like this one are heavy with the potential for offense because they either include those who do not wish to be included (the good writer who doesn’t drink) or exclude those who do wish to be included (the good female writer who loves the local bartender).

The gender-nonspecific pronoun in English – in 2013 – is still “he.” I’m a purist, and so I use “he” as the gender-nonspecific pronoun because regardless of my personal, progressive feelings, that’s still the right word. When someone says to me, “You know, Lex, a good writer befriends his local bartender,” I grin and order another. No problem.

I might bat my lashes and say, “Or her bartender.” I have to really feel like doing that, though; I think the whole “his or her” thing is pretty awkward. The language does allow for any number of workarounds, though. If you don’t want to use “he,” try one of these instead.

“One” is more than the loneliest number.

I enjoy the sound of “one” as the gender-nonspecific pronoun. It’s upscale. Use it to replace any singular antecedent, but be sure to use it consistently. The consistency makes it classy-sexy. Give it a whirl.

“As a writer, one must befriend one’s local bartender, mustn’t one?” It’s not perfect. The introductory phrase is a little awkward. But “one” makes for an elegant mouthful.

Make it a party.

For a more populist appeal, use plurals and remove the gender-nonspecific problem altogether. If you do this, however, remember that your subject is now plural, so you must act accordingly. “Good writers befriend their local bartenders.” Now the generalization is more of a problem – before when I said “a good writer,” I could say I was talking about another good writer. But now the gender problem has disappeared. Male and female writers alike are at the bar together.

Careless writers often just replace the gender-specific pronoun with “they” or “their” but fail to make additional changes. Generally, a good read-through solves this problem, unless the words “each” and “every” are involved. I often see sentences like “Each writer must befriend their local bartender,” which is a problem because the subject is still singular. Same goes for “every writer.” As long as the subject is singular, you’re still stuck with a gender-specific pronoun – he or she. If you want to keep the “their,” go for “all writers” or “some writers.” “Many writers” can provide an easy escape, too.

We’re a big, happy family.

You can achieve a similar effect by using “we.” It’s a little more buddy-buddy than “they,” which mitigates the potential for offense. “We writers must befriend our local bartenders.” I’m a big fan of “we” personally, but those people who didn’t want to be included sometimes bristle at its casual use.

Maybe we just won’t invite them next time.

Am I alone in cheerfully using “he” as the gender-nonspecific pronoun? Stir the pot below in the comments.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

4 thoughts on “They Shoot Gender-Nonspecific Pronouns, Don’t They?

  • Aaahhh, you’ve hit on one of my pet peeves – the incorrectly used plural pronoun! It makes me crazy! Do people not understand that THEY refers to more than ONE person?! I get this instant image of some poor person with two heads! It’s unsettling!

    Personally, I prefer the “one” approach myself. It sounds regal, and I enjoy sounding regal. 🙂

    • Yeah, the whole faulty subject/verb agreement thing drives me absolutely crazy! I actually had a hard time writing the faulty examples in this column because they just felt, well, wrong.

      I dig using “one” from time to time, too. I agree — it has a way of making whatever you’re talking about sound more important. 🙂 One simply must be sure to try the hot wings, mustn’t one? How could one survive without grape soda? One can never truly escape the threat that one’s stockings will become snagged.

  • One so enjoys your posts! 🙂 We’re all so diverted by your wit and perspicacity. Seriously, I enjoyed the post and the tactful instruction. I’ll try to be more attentive going forward.

    • Oh, gosh, was I tactful? That’s not really like me. 🙂 But I’m glad you came by and had a good time!

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