10-second review: Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language by Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman. Random House. 288 pages. Hardcover, $22. The authors prefer “he” or “she” in reference to “anyone” as in “Can anyone know what future they will see in 20 years?” The reviewer disagrees, saying “they” is acceptable. I don’t agree with either solution. RayS.
Title: “Experts Dispel Common Usage Myths.” Chuck Leddy. The Writer (September 2009), 42-43. The Writer is a magazine by writers for writers.
Quote: “Although O’Conner and Kellerman celebrate flexibility, they do come down on the conservative side of some debates. They disagree with writers who use ‘they’ to serve as both a masculine and feminine pronoun. In the sentence, ‘Can anyone know what future they will see in 20 years?’ the authors might replace ‘they’ with ‘he or she.’ They point out that some authorities accept a singular ‘they,’ but some do not.”
Quote: “ ‘One solution,’ the authors note about the ‘they’ problem, ‘is to refer to the generic person with ‘he’ or ‘him’ or ‘his’ in some places, and with ‘she’ or ‘her’ or ‘hers’ in others. Simply alternate.’ This reviewer would not agree with that approach, preferring to use ‘they’ instead of alternative singular masculine and feminine pronouns. If language is ever-evolving, this usage should work itself out eventually, but I’m on the side of the gender-neutral ‘they.’ ”
Comment: And I disagree with both authors and reviewer.
Probably the most persistent question on sexist language I have been asked is how to deal with this sentence:
“Everyone returned to their homes.”
“Everyone” is singular and “their” is plural. Grammatically, they don’t agree. The purist says, “No way.”
The traditional solution, “Everyone returned to his home” is grammatically correct. “Everyone” is singular; “his” is singular. But the sentence is sexist, implying that the whole human race is male. Not acceptable.
Another solution popular in my professional journals is, “ Everyone returned to his or her home.” Awkward. And once you begin the string of “his and her” in following sentences, the language becomes repetitious and ugly.
The best solution is to begin in the plural and to stay there.
“The party goers returned to their homes.”
The subject, “party goers,” is plural and “their” is plural. Grammatically, they agree. Besides “party goers” is more precise than “Everyone.”
Believe me, it will be easier to switch from the subjects, “The student,” and “The child,” to “Students” and “Children” than to have to deal with all the “his and her” phrases that the use of the singular will require.
By the way, one other solution to “Everyone returned to their homes” would be, “Everyone went home.” That solution has the advantage of conciseness.
Also, if you begin in the plural your sentences will read smoothly. Never a hitch or a distraction.
So if you find yourself starting with the singular and wondering what to do about the awkward use of “his and her” and "he and she," just change from singular to plural and everything will follow smoothly.