If the English language had been properly organized ... then there would be a word which meant both "he" and "she," and I could write, "If John or Mary comes, heesh will want to play tennis," which would save a lot of trouble.
—A. A. Milne, The Christopher Robin Birthday Book (1930)
Good to know this stumped such an erudite Englishman as the author ofWinnie the Pooh
Because it is still stumping us.
My pal Betty Ming Liu, a journalist, teacher, and writer who studied with me at the New School, recently wrote to me on this topic, in relation to Twitter and an upcoming piece for her very fabulous blog.
I've gotten into Twitter. And when someone follows me, I get this email: "John Smith is now following your updates on Twitter. You may follow John Smith as well by clicking on the 'follow' button on their profile."
Shouldn't it be "his/her profile" or "this person's profile"?
Hmm. Generally, grammarians agree that a pronoun should agree with its antecedent in number (their for multiple people, him or her or she or he for individuals). But the absence of a gender-neutral singular personal pronoun, and increased sensitivity to using the masculine he or him to refer to all humans has brewed trouble.
Here's my take on the issue: In the case Betty mentions, "this person's" is probably preferred. However, we have to be aware of the context of the discourse. Nowadays, in all but formal English, "their" is acceptable in the usage cited. Especially in oral communication, email, and, certainly, Twitter where the form's economy of characters dictates what some insufferable theorizers might argue amounts to the development of an entirely new dialect, "their" is most often used. Descriptive grammarians would search millions of published works for instances of its use and probably decide the use of "their" is overtaking what prescriptive grammarians might prefer.
Words into Type
And that's not only the only place gender interferes with our pronouns: What number of pronoun "everyone/everybody" takes has been a matter of great controversy as well for quite a while. According to
"Dr. Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen, and James Thurber are among the esteemed writers who never hesitated to use everybody . . . they despite the strictures of grammarians."
Take the sentence “Everyone was here but they all left.”
Seems like the rule in theThe Oxford English Dictionary (20 Volume Set)
applies to that sentence: “The pronoun referring to every one is often plural: the absence of a singular pronoun of common gender rendering this violation of grammatical concord so metimes necessary.”
I love that phrase: "rendering this violation of grammatical concord so metimes necessary," The OED authors are so right.