I’m a writer. I write erudite books, humorous blogs, elegant e-mails and occasionally non-cryptic text messages. As such I have an interest in the syntax and semantics of the English language. I read books on English grammar—they don’t always agree with each other nor I with some of them. I even write books on some of the quirkier aspects of the language. I check and double-check for grammatical errors in my prose. But, I have a problem. What do I write when I need a third-person gender-free singular pronoun to replace a noun representing an animate object in a sentence?
What’s he on about, you ask. Okay, here’s an example. These days we are very sensitive about assigning a gender to, say, a job that can be done by a male or female. A dustman has become a refuse collector, a chairman either a chair (!) or a chairperson, a fireman a firefighter, and so on. So, if I were writing about an unnamed firefighter and, once introduced, turn to the pronoun representation, how do I do it? Consider this extract from an imaginary book about a non-binary (transgender) firefighter tackling a fire:
The firefighter entered the blazing room. He or she could feel the searing heat melting the soles of his or her shoes. He or she muttered to himself or herself, “Jeez, it’s hot in here.”
Horrible, right? I could stay with the noun throughout:
The firefighter entered the blazing room. The firefighter could feel the searing heat melting the soles of the firefighter’s shoes. The firefighter muttered to the firefighter’s self, “Jeez, it’s hot in here.”
Even worse. What we need is a third-person gender-free singular pronoun to represent the firefighter once we reach the second sentence but here’s the thing—there isn’t one in the English language. Well, that’s not quite right. There is. It’s it. Remember: he, she or it but it is used for inanimate objects. Rarely is it used for an animate object unless it’s a baby or an animal.
Let’s try using it in my extract:
The firefighter entered the blazing room. It could feel the searing heat melting the soles of its shoes. It muttered to itself, “Jeez, it’s hot in here.”
That definitely doesn’t work. The LGBT camp would be up in arms about this description.
So, what’s the solution? We could try he/she or s/he or even one:
The firefighter entered the blazing room. One could feel the searing heat melting the soles of ones shoes. One muttered to oneself, “Jeez, it’s hot in here.”
… but that sounds too stilted and in any case the Queen has the monopoly on the use of one to represent oneself.
There have been attempts to invent a third-person gender-free singular pronoun. Thon (formed from that + one) with derivatives thons (possessive) and thonself (reflexive) was proposed by Charles Converse in 1884 but has not found acceptance.
No, the only solution is to break the rules and use third-person plural pronouns: they (subject), them (object), their (possessive) or themselves (reflexive). We don’t object when a Wimbledon commentator says each player in the mixed doubles final played their best today. This sounds better than saying each player played his and her best today.
I’ve adopted various solutions in my own writings. Here are some examples.
The Religion Business: Cashing In On God, 2012
In this book, if I’ve need for a pronoun to identify God, I’ll use the pronoun he or him. Since we don’t know the sex of God, or even if he has any sexual characteristics, he/him, she/her or it would all be appropriate pronouns but the usual convention is to assign God to be a male but note that this does not confer maleness on God.
We have all heard people say things like ‘He has inherited his father’s mathematical skills’ or ‘She has inherited her mother’s piano-playing skills’. He or she may well have acquired the same skills, but not as a result of inheriting genes.
On One Occasion… Ivory Tower and Road Warrior Stories, 2013
“But none of these things will make my car go faster and they add to the manufacturing cost!” protested the designer.
Fingers to the Keyboard, 2014
And it came to pass that, finally, on the sixteenth day of October twenty-twelve, the UK Home Secretary, Theresa May, said that Gary McKinnon will not be extradited to the USA and there was much relief in many different quarters including the Daily Mail (it will be their page 1 headline tomorrow, mark my words).
This person is already wealthy by their own talents. Why should I contribute further to their wealth by buying the endorsed product?
Tales from the Trails Part 2: non-UK Trails, 2015
I use a flannel when having a shower. I am not one of those people who just use their hands to soap all over.
June 23rd EU Referendum blog, 2016 (April 19)
I just note the sentiment and the utterer’s name and ask myself three questions:
- What’s his, or her, angle?
- Is he, or she, seeking to protect their job, their empire or their wealth?
- Is he, or she, looking for their 15 minutes of fame?
As you see, I oscillate between using the plural pronouns and the uglier he or she form. I even mix them: Is he, or she, looking for their 15 minutes of fame? instead of Is he, or she, looking for his, or her, 15 minutes of fame? Is thon looking for thons 15 minutes of fame? sounds so much better don’t you think?
Let’s hear it for the thon!
2021 update. The transgender community seem to be settling with they and their as preferred pronouns. For example, Asia Kate Dillon, the Adjudicator in John Wick: Chapter 3, Parabellum, 2019 movie, uses these pronouns in their entry on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asia_Kate_Dillon. As does Elliot Page, formerly known as Ellen Page, star of the 2007 movie, Juno and many other movies.