Pronouns were once only a pip pesky. She, her, hers went together. These pronouns all referred to a single person. He, him, and his likewise. They, them, theirs referred to more than one person. “You” presented the only problem since it was both singular and plural. The southernism “y’all” makes some sense.
Pronouns after singular nouns of indeterminate gender, however, do present a problem. Grammarians would say that this sentence is correct: “A writer must work his ass off to make a living.” Of course, women are writers, and the sentence does not seem to include them. Even so, when I first learned this element of grammar, I was told to use “his” in such a sentence because “his” was no longer male in this context but encompassed both genders.
That may be what grammarians taught, but that was not always the instinctive response to the sentence. It takes some mental effort to include females in the collection of people who are writers when “his” is used, while the notion of male writers is an instinctive reaction to the sentence. Of course, the sentence could say, “A writer must work his or her ass off to make a living.” This removes the gendered ambiguity, but a price is paid by producing a clunkier sentence. (And why is it that the phrase is almost always “his or her” and seldom “her or his”? Is it because we are used to males taking precedence?)
The solution for this problem is relatively easy. Make the singular nouns of indeterminate gender plural. “Bakers want their bread to be savored.” “Writers must work their asses off to make a living.” Inclusive, clear, and without thuds.
The similar problem with indefinite pronouns is harder to solve. These include anyone, everyone, no one, none, everybody, someone, each. Grammarians maintain that all indefinite pronouns are singular, and both these sentences are grammatically correct: “Everyone should bring his own beach towel,” and, “Everyone should bring his or her beach towel.” However, “his or hers” brings that inelegance to the injunction, and the universal “his” not only is not inclusive, it introduces an ambiguity. Will towels be provided for the females coming to the clambake?
Many good writers are rejecting the fuddy-duddy grammarians and now follow an indefinite pronoun with a plural pronoun. “No one wants their advice ignored.” “Everybody should bring their own beach towel.” I admit that since I was taught under the old grammatical regime this still grates a bit on my sensibilities, but it is a good solution. When a grammatical rule prevents a better, clearer formulation, the grammatical rule should bend, and our language will improve. And as good writers and speakers increasingly use a plural pronoun after an indefinite one, the jarring note that it produces in a few of us will soon disappear.
However, there is another pronoun problem for which I have not found a good solution. Some pronouns—I, me, you, they, and their companions—are not gendered, but others are—he, she, him, her, and their companions. The gendered pronouns, however, are only binary—male and female. What pronouns, then, should be used for the sizeable portion of the population who are neither male nor female, who are nonbinary?
I have a personal stake in this. The person whom I referred to on this blog as “the daughter” is nonbinary. Although this blog is titled “Amelia’s Dad,” that child is now called AJ (and I need to change the blog’s title, but my limited skills have not so far found how to make the change efficiently to “AJ’s Dad.”)
I wrote a recent post about AJ and me. In it I referred to AJ as the nonbinary progeny and abbreviated that in the post as the NBP. I was trying to be cute, but I also like the ring of NBP partly because it sounds much like MVP. In the post, it was all right to use non-binary progeny and NBP because it was clear to whom (yes, I am part of the declining population who still uses “whom”) I was referring. In ordinary discourse, this does not work. Few of my conversational partners would know that NBP referred to AJ.
(concluded July 1)