Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Sexism (2).

Sexism (2). Today: The Pronoun Problem. English has a number of common-sex general words, such as “person,” “anyone,” “everyone,” and “no one,” but no common-sex singular personal pronoun, just “he,” “she,” and “it.” The traditional approach has been to use the masculine “he” and “him” to cover all people. That this practice has come under increasing attack has caused the most difficult problem in the realm of sexist language. As H.W. Fowler noted (with contributions from Ernest Gowers): “There are three makeshifts: first, ‘as anybody can see for himself or herself’; second, ‘as anybody can see for themselves’; and third, ‘as anybody can see for himself.'” Modern American Usage 404 (2d ed. 1965). Fowler called the first ridiculously clumsy, the second most popular, the third recommended. At least two other makeshifts are now available. The first is commonly used by American academics: “as anybody can see for herself,” often alternated with masculine pronouns. Whether this phraseology will someday stop sounding strange to most readers only time will tell. A second new makeshift has entered Canadian legislation: *"as anybody can see for themself." (Donald L. Revell et al., “‘Themself’ and Nonsexist Style in Canadian Legislative Drafting,” 10 English Today 10 (1994).) The word may fill the need for a gender-neutral reflexive pronoun, but many readers and writers — especially Americans — bristle at the sight or the sound of it. Typographical gimmickry may once have served a political purpose, but it should be avoided as an answer to the problem. Tricks such as *"s/he," *"he/she," and *"she/he" — and even the gloriously misbegotten double entendre, *"s/he/it" — are trendy, ugly, distracting, and often unpronounceable. If we must have alternatives, “he or she” is the furthest we should go. Next: Better Solutions. *Invariably inferior forms. For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “For whatever reasons — goodwill, a sense of justice, an editor’s instructions, the pursuit of clarity — a growing number of writers and speakers are trying to free their language from unconscious semantic bias.” Casey Miller & Kate Swift, The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing ix (2d ed. 1988).
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