Posted by Andrew Crockett
President Andrew presents an occasional column for the grammatically challenged.
 
This week?
 
How to avoid trouble with gender specific pronouns.
 
 
 
From earliest times until about the 1960s (blame those Baby Boomers again) it was acceptable to use the pronoun he (and himhimselfhis) to denote a person of either sex.  Since the 1960s, feminist thinking has awakened us to the fact that this generic use of male pronouns, though intended to be inclusive, is needlessly exclusionary of half the population.  These days several devices are used to avoid inappropriate use of gender specific pronouns. 
 
When a gender-neutral pronoun is needed, the options usually adopted are the plural forms they, their, themselves, etc., or alternatively he or she (his or her) or the reverse she or he, (her or his).  Examples are:
 
A patient should follow their doctor’s advice.
 
A patient should follow his or her doctor’s advice.
 
While some people still object to using plural pronouns as a work around, the alternative use of his or hers is cumbersome and quickly becomes tiresome when repeatedly used in a text.
 
Interestingly, the use of plural pronouns when to referring to both genders is not new, but rather a revival of a practice dating from the 16th Century and common in 19th Century literature.  Take for this example this sentence written by Charles Dickens in 1853.
 
Whenever a person says to you that they are as innocent as can be in all concerning money, look well after your own money because they are dead certain to collar it if they can.
 
When using the plural pronoun in this way care needs to be taken not to inappropriately follow it with plural nouns.  For example: 
 
Someone will lose their lives over this. (are they cats?)
 
It should, of course, be: Someone will lose their life over this.  
 
Care is also needed to avoid using single pronouns following a plural noun, as in: 
 
They relied on the ability of farmers to follow the market and decide the best future for his or her farm.
 
There are other strategies you can also use.  You could rewrite a sentence in the plural.  For example:
 
Patients should follow the advice of their doctor.
 
Alternatively, the generic you could be used, provided it is appropriate to address the reader directly:
 
As a patient you should follow your doctor’s advice.
 
Some ghastly composite forms have been devised that mercifully never gained traction – hesh and wself are examples.  Enough said.
 
Source: Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Fourth Edition, 2015.