Mar 28, 2013

Two Out of Three

written by Jeanette Koenig

There is a saying in business that there are three things people want a job to be: 1) quick, 2) good, 3) cheap. However, you can only get two of the three. A good job done quickly won’t be cheap; a good job done inexpensively won’t be done quickly; and a quick job done cheaply won’t be done well.

The same problem exists when finding a suitable pronoun where the gender of the referent is unknown or indefinite. In other words, someone did something, but we don’t know whether the someone is a he or a she. There are several choices, but each choice is going to specify an aspect of the pronoun that is not quite right for the situation: gender, number, or animacy.

Take this example:

:-| I called the service person, but he won’t get out here until this afternoon.

This sentence assumes the service person is male, but as I have no idea who specifically is coming, it could easily be female. For many speakers, the pronoun “he” is only loosely marked for gender; that is, while “she” always refers to a female, “he” may or may not specifically refer to a male. However, this is not true for all speakers, who see “he” as strongly marked for masculine gender as “she” is for feminine.

Switching to the gender-inclusive pronoun “they” is another option:

:-| I called the service person, but they won’t get out here until this afternoon.

Here, the problem is with number: only one person is supposed to come out. Again, for many speakers, “they” is only loosely marked for number. “He,” “she,” and “it” always refer to the singular in their dialect, but “they” can refer to singular. You can find writers using “they” in this sense all the way back to Charles Dickens (and probably before then, but I’m not that literate).

Some dialects, under certain contexts, can use the pronoun “it” when they don’t know the gender. This is done for infants and animals and, in British English, even for children:

:-| Continue to feed the naughty puppy beef Wellington until it has learned its lesson.

Here, the pronoun “it” is considered to be only loosely marked as inanimate. “He” and “she” refer to animate subjects, such as a boy, girl, or puppy; “they” can refer to either animate or inanimate, such as boys, girls, puppies, or airplanes; but “it” is generally considered inanimate to the point that it sounds slightly strange to some speakers when used for animals and children. In British English, “it” is more loosely marked for animacy and is often used for babies and even children; however, it is certainly never accepted when referring to adult humans:

:- ( I called the service person, but it won’t get out here until this afternoon.

What is to be done? Covering the bases with phrases such as “he or she” adds another constraint: elegance and economy of words (not to mention objections such as, “well why did ‘he’ get mentioned first?”). In the end, just as with the kind of job one wants to have done, one must decide which of the constraints, gender, number, or animacy (or elegance as well) is the least important and can be sacrificed. Then prepare for someone somewhere criticizing the choice.

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