Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Tue Apr 17 17:13:47 UTC 2001

>The use of they and its forms with such antecedents is actually about 600
>years old.

Chaucer (ca. 1395, quoted from Jespersen in the M-W usage dictionary): "And
whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, They wol come up ...."

In more recent times, "their" (singular) has been routinely used not only
for 'gender neutrality' but also for 'notional agreement'. E.g., in a poker
game in the 1960's, in which no female has ever played (nor will ever play)
and in which no player is interested in feminist politics, I can picture
(and I can remember, I think) "Does everybody have their cards?" --
although it's grammatically incorrect IMHO.

I find this inoffensive as a casual usage, but I confess I am annoyed to
see it self-consciously used in formal writing: I think I feel embarrassed
for the writer who apparently feels that he is making some sort of
political point or contribution in this manner. Recently I saw in a safety
memorandum something like: "In one case a technician had their hand
crushed." Why not "In one case a technician's hand was crushed"?

On the Internet nobody knows whether you're a man, or a woman, or a dog, or
a piece of software .... I think in these enlightened times English needs
not only a common-gender word for "he/she" but also a
gender-and-species-and-even-animateness-neutral third-person-singular
pronoun. The obvious choice, made by contracting "she"+"he"+"it", might
encounter some opposition, of course ....

-- Doug Wilson

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