[avatar user=”LeeAnn” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” link=”file”]LeeAnn Rhoden[/avatar]
Third person singular: he, him, she, her. Seems simple enough. He likes ice cream. She likes ice cream. The tree fell on him. The tree fell on her. The problem with our language is that third person pronouns are gender specific. Not just our language, in most western languages. In fact, according to this article in the World Atlas of Language Structures Online there are only 254 languages with no gender distinctions in the third person pronoun.
The complication of no gender specification is obvious – Person likes ice cream. Who? Is this person a male or female? Is it important to know or is it more important to know what flavor ice cream person likes? The tree fell on person. Is it important to know what gender has been flattened? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Our English language and most Indo-European languages have gender specific third person pronouns. So, we know if the person who likes ice cream is male or female and we know which gender has been victimized by the tree. But, what if we don’t know? What pronoun do we use?
It used to be, that when gender was unknown, the male pronoun was substituted. He likes ice cream. Oh! Sorry, Mary! She likes ice cream. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the masculine being the fail safe pronoun. I’m not that thin-skinned that if someone were to refer to me as “he” or “him” without actually knowing it’s me (I am female) I’d be insulted.
However, at some point in the past few decades in writing the combination pronoun “he/she” or worse “s/he” started showing up. S/He should sign on the dotted line. Way too much work. And why? Is it to be gender inclusive? Why not use the neutral “one?” One should sign on the dotted line. Is it an attempt to be crystal clear? To know that it’s an actual person rather than something else? It should sign on the dotted line. Perhaps in some legal situations it may be necessary to be absolute.
“They” has been used as an answer. But is using the third person plural pronoun better? I don’t know, I’d rather be “he” than a “they.” Besides the fact “they” is plural, to use it then one has to conjugate the verb in the singular “you” form. Ugh.
For now, let’s revel in tradition and stick with “he” or “one” for the unknown gender. It’s simpler. It’s cleaner. It’s correct. What do you think? What do you prefer?