Writing Tools: “He Or She,” “Him Or Her” English Language Lacks Common Gender

Writing Tools: “He Or She,” “Him Or Her” English Language Lacks Common Gender

The use of “he” to mean “he or she” is sometimes absurd as well as offensive – especially these days.

Arup ChakrabortyUpdated: Sunday, October 29, 2023, 12:29 AM IST
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Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh): Many young and seasoned writers are in a dilemma over writing “he or she,” and it happens, since the English language does not have a singular pronoun of common gender.

Therefore, there is barely any rule to justify this area of the language. William Strunk Jr and EB White wrote: Do not use 'they' when the antecedent is a distributive expression such as each, each one, everybody, every one, many a man.

Such sentences should be followed by a singular pronoun. Here lies the crux, because the pronouns, like he, him, his and himself have traditionally been used to refer to either sex.

The use of “he” to mean “he or she” is sometimes absurd as well as offensive – especially these days. Such an absurd situation occurred when Albert Bleumenthal said in the New York State Assembly: Everyone will be able to decide for himself whether or not to have an abortion.

Feminism and language

The feminist movement has drawn attention to problems of masculine bias in the use of the language, wrote Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut in Longman Guide to English Usage.

According to the authors, careful writers avoid expressions that might be understood as confirming stereotypes of sex roles in society, in particular expressions that reflect or reinforce tendencies to judge women and men unequally in matters that have nothing to do with differences in sex.

As has been discussed, traditionally, formal English has used “he” to refer to both: If a researcher wishes to use human subjects in his experiments, he should first apply for written permission from this committee. A writer should avoid implying that the researcher must be a male by applying various methods.

We may replace “he” with "they," because plural they is sex neutral: If researchers wish to use human subjects in their experiments, they should first apply for written permission from this committee. To avoid any controversy, we may rephrase the sentence: A researcher wishing to use human subjects in experiments should first apply for written permission from this committee.

Using “he or she” or “she or he” (or corresponding combinations such as him or her, his or her); if a researcher wishes to use human subjects in “his or her” experiments, “he or she” should first apply for written permission from this committee. But this combination is awkward. 

Similarly, instead of saying, each worker has got “his or her salary” or every worker has got “her or his salary”, we may write, “all workers” have got their salary. The abbreviated forms with brackets – (s) he or with backslash he/she, she/he or s/she – can be used, but seasoned authors are opposed to such usages, because they are awkward, and may confuse the readers.

Therefore, we may write “business people” instead of “businessmen”, “human achievements (instead of man’s achievements,” “ordinary people (instead of man on the street),” and “working hours (instead of man hours).”

Nevertheless, writing “everyone should save their money” is wrong, because the subject, everyone, is a singular noun and is supposed to agree with its antecedent in number. The word, “their,” is plural, so the sentence is wrong. If we write “people should save their money,” the sentence is grammatically correct, but this device does not always work. So, using a plural subject when the situation permits, is one way to solve the problem.

We may also refer to the person’s job title or organisational position, making no reference to the sex of the individual holding the job. For example, instead of saying, the girl at the centre will give you directions, we may say, the receptionist will give you directions. Let’s cheer up women’s movements, but not get swayed.  

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