Sunday, January 13, 2013

Pronouns In the Feminist Era

A question from a Spanish-speaking reader struggling with a common English language challenge in the era of gender equalism--whether or not to use the masculine pronoun:

When you say "someone" or "a person" can change ___ mind and you want to put a possessive pronoun, what do you use? Do you use "its"? In Spanish we would say "una persona puede cambiar de opiniĆ³n" but the possessive for "someone" or "a person" would be "su" that can refer to both.

You've stumbled onto a key problem with English in the modern era. The traditional solution was to use the male pronoun and male possessive pronoun:

A person can change his mind.

You should give the customer a refund if he argues with the manager.

In the feminist era, however, these sentences, while grammatically correct, are considered sexist. Feel free to continue using the masculine pronoun if you wish, but be aware that some readers may consider it tone deaf or even insulting.

If you'd prefer not to offend half or more of your readers, consider these alternatives:

1) Use the plural pronoun, which is gender neutral in English:

People can change their minds.

You should give customers a refund if they argue with the manager.

2) Use a mix of male and female possessives. Use one gender in the first example, the other gender in the next:

You should give the customer a refund if she argues with the manager. However, a person can change his mind.

3) Use the phrases "he or she" or "his or her." This solution is a breach of Strunk's maxim to omit needless words, but it can function in a pinch:

A person can change his or her mind.

This post is gratefully dedicated to Rhiannon Laurie.