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Examining settled and unsettling questions.

English Needs a New Pronoun

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It’s too bad that the English language doesn’t have a singular pronoun suitable for referring to either a man or a woman.  We do have a neuter singular pronoun in the language–the word “it.”  A baby is sometimes referred to as “it,” but people generally resist using that pronoun to refer to a person, especially an adult man or woman.

Here is why a new pronoun is needed. (Actually we need three pronouns if you count nominative, possessive, and objective forms.) English frequently has a word in the first part of a sentence that is referred to later in the sentence by a pronoun.  The earlier noun or pronoun is called an antecedent, which means “coming before.”  Such antecedents as person, worker, student, teacher, voter, doctor, pilot, driver, anyone, everyone, and so forth, indicate one human being who could be a man or a woman.  The problem arises when we use a singular pronoun later in the sentence to refer to that person, worker, student, etc.

To illustrate the problem, let’s look at this sentence:  “Each worker should bring his tools with him.”  Clearly the antecedent worker is singular, and it could refer to either a man or a woman.   But the pronouns his and him in that sentence seem to suggest that any worker is always a male.

Still, using him and his in such a sentence is the traditional way, in English, of referring to either a male or a female.  Some people think the language developed that way because of a male bias against women.  So as a way to avoid offending anyone, some writers and teachers in recent years have offered alternatives to the use of his and him in such sentences.

One solution that we often hear today is the use of their and them instead: “Each worker should bring their tools with them.” But these plural pronouns don’t agree in number with the singular antecedent worker.   Still, we sometimes hear prominent and educated people using their and them to refer to one person—-oftentimes unnecessarily:  “A mother may not know their child is taking drugs.”  Since a mother must be a female, why not just say, “A mother may not know her child is taking drugs”?

Another strategy is to use both male and female singular pronouns when referring to a singular antecedent: “Each worker should bring his or her tools with him or her.”  This one produces some pretty awful writing, and almost no writer completes his or her long essay using this tactic without throwing up his or her hands in disgust.

Another strategy suggested by some textbooks is to use always the plural (both plural antecedents and plural pronouns) when writing about people.  In this way plural antecedents and the plural pronouns their and them always agree in number: “All workers should bring their tools with them.”

But always having to use the plural handicaps the language by hurting its economy and precision.   Being able to use both  singular and plural is useful in some sentences for making clear distinctions.  Let’s look at several versions of a sentence to illustrate.

In the sentence below labeled A, only plurals are used, causing an ambiguity; but, in the two sentences under B, two different meanings are made clear by using both singular and plural nouns and pronouns.

A.  Ambiguous sentence:  “Although the workers brought their tools, they were not needed.”   In this version they could refer either to workers or to tools.

B.  Unambiguous sentence with one meaning: “Although the worker brought his tools, he was not needed.”   In this version he clearly refers to worker.   Unambiguous sentence with a different meaning: “Although the worker brought his tools, they were not needed.”  In this version they clearly refers to tools.

So the problem is that we need a set of singular pronouns that can refer to any singular antecedent, whether male or female.    Years ago when discussion of this problem began, two women professors of English wrote an article in which they recommended creating such pronouns.   They proposed using te for nominative case, ter for possessive case and tem for objective case.   Using these pronouns, we could shape a sentence this way: “If a worker brings ter tools with tem, te will be prepared.”

These pronouns would solve the problem, and eventually we wouldn’t notice how funny they sound.

Unfortunately, problems in English don’t get solved that way.  Changes in language don’t happen through conscious effort and rational planning.  Language, especially English, just evolves by chance according to the whims of those who use it.


Written by polemicscat

July 5, 2008 at 1:01 am

One Response

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  1. […] – bookmarked by 1 members originally found by mrlittlebig on 2008-08-14 English Needs Three New Pronouns https://polemicscat.wordpress.com/2008/07/05/english-needs-three-new-pronouns/ – bookmarked by 6 […]

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    September 4, 2008 at 3:30 am

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