Meta Question

robmandu's avatar

Is using they and their as gender independent terms acceptable to us on Fluther?

Asked by robmandu (21331points) July 11th, 2008

Ex 1: The flutherite went to buy an iPhone. But they were stymied in the process when Apple’s activation servers went off-line. For the moment, their iPhone is bricked.

Or would you prefer both genders slashed together:

Ex 2: The flutherite went to buy an iPhone. But he/she was stymied in the process when Apple’s activation servers went off-line. For the moment, his/her iPhone is bricked.

Or pick a single pronoun, either masculine or feminine, at random:

Ex 3: The flutherite went to buy an iPhone. But she was stymied in the process when Apple’s activation servers went off-line. For the moment, her iPhone is bricked.

Observing members: 0 Composing members: 0

34 Answers

cheebdragon's avatar

I’m open to all 3, but we need to consult with gail first.

Knotmyday's avatar

motion seconded.

kevbo's avatar

I’ve been using that convention for a long time. My only other citation is that it’s deliberately explained and used in What Color is My Parachute?

nikipedia's avatar

I feel very strongly about using either 2 or 3.

soundedfury's avatar

We could bring back the Old English pronoun hir. I’m always a fan of throwback words.

robmandu's avatar

@fury, what’s the possessive form: hirs?

ccatron's avatar

he/she is the correct way to do it in the non-virtual world, but internet conversations don’t always follow traditional grammar rules. i’ve tried being a grammar policeman, but there’s no point in being that way…and as you can see, i’ve given in to some of the annoyances that once bothered me.

so, I say, they and their are acceptable, although somewhat annoying. using your third option is only acceptable if you know for sure the gender of the person being discussed. to use a gender-specific term to talk about the action of a person is confusing if the gender of the person is not already defined.

jlm11f's avatar

i would go with 2 or 3 too. #1 would just make me wonder whether you were multi-tasking while typing the sentence.

monsoon's avatar

Isn’t number 1 gramatically incorrect?

The really correct way to do it would be to say her or his, or his or her.

And we could make this gender friendly by switching the terms by saying his or her, then she or he each time we need to refer to some one via pronoun, respectively placing female and male first one after another. In your example you placed the male first each time. (I know no harm was meant, but if we’re going to be anally PC…)

monsoon's avatar

Also, in textbooks, they usually use number three. They will pick a male or female pronoun and go back and forth using the opposite for every other subject being referred to. Seemed relevant.

jlm11f's avatar

@ monsoon – I remember being taught to use only “his/her” in english class (and SAT prep books). Option 3 is valid when the gender is known. I also agree with you about Option 1 being grammatically incorrect.

monsoon's avatar

But if the gender is not known, then it’s a hypothetical person. So number three would still be valid. As in many modern textbooks, this is how gendered pronouns are used.

nikipedia's avatar

It is grammatically incorrect because the pronoun disagrees with its antecedent in number.

My favorite fixit is to change the antecedent rather than the pronoun. So the initial example becomes:

The flutherites went to buy iPhones. But they were stymied in the process when Apple’s activation servers went off-line. For the moment, their iPhones are bricked.

monsoon's avatar

Not the way I’m thinking.

The flutherite went to buy an iPhone. She was stymied in the process when Apple’s activation servers went off-line. For the moment, her iPhone is bricked.

When you change to a new hypothetical subject, you change pronouns.

Another flutherer, however, had no problem downloading software for his new iPhone. He is a lucky son-of-a-gun.

And next time, you would use the feminine, then male, and so on.

monsoon's avatar

I mean, I don’t care how people use pronouns on fluther, but I’ve seen this as a completely acceptable way to use gender neutral pronouns in academic writing.

soundedfury's avatar

Your example is obviously sexist. Are you suggesting that women can’t activate their iPhone because they’re technologically deficient where men can do it no problem?

Obviously I’m being facetious, but it’s the danger you run into when using gender-specific pronouns.

robmandu's avatar

Great discussion so far! Thanks all!

Followup question:

If a reader unknowingly stumbles into a hypothetical discourse where the author uses he or she, might that be confusing at first? The use of a singular personal pronoun might appear to convey specificity that the reader then might believe that s/he missed. (@fury’s facetious example makes the point well.)

In other words, by using they as a gender independent pronoun with the accompanying grammtical errors (like mis-matched verb tense in my example), does that make the hypothetical more obvious to the reader?

Perhaps using they / their is an example where grammatical incorrectness leads to better communication?

monsoon's avatar

True all of that. But every academic article or text I read uses this method. So the way I see it, in time, we will expect this use of pronouns. “He/she” will be as jarring as a universal male.

monsoon's avatar

It’s more difficult in a small fluther post, when your reader might not get enough writing out of you to realize that you’re trying to be gender neutral. idk.

nikipedia's avatar

@soundedfury: Actually, women would be struggling to activate their iPhones, plural. I assume you do not expect us all to share the same one. And I think people who get huffy about gendered pronouns maybe need real problems in their lives.

@robmandu: Context is everything. Pronouns can be confusing even in situations that don’t have plurality issues. For instance, consider the following sentence: Charlie and the unicorn were crossing the bridge when he suddenly had an epiphany. “He” is an ambiguous pronoun that could refer to either Charlie or the unicorn. So, context is everything, especially with pronouns.

And my solution (pluralizing the antecedent) works almost every time you have a hypothetical.

morphail's avatar

@soundedfury: I assume by “the Old English pronoun hir” you mean the third person plural pronoun that was supplanted by “they” (borrowed from Old Norse).

“They”, “their”, and before that, “hire”, “her”, has been used as a common-gender and common-number pronoun for at least 700 years. Some examples:

The ryȝtwys man… Þat takeȝ not her lyf in vayne,
(the righteous man… that taketh not their life in vain)
– Pearl, ca1300

There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend;
– Shakespeare, A Comedy of Errors IV, iii

But every body is to judge for themselves, and the Lucases are very good sort of girls, I assure you. – Jane Austin, Pride and Prejudice, 1813

“They” used with an indefinite singular antecedent is clearly grammatical. I’m willing to bet all native speakers use it in speech, altho they may not notice.

The prescription against “singular they” was invented in the 18th century. But it’s a prescription based on the misguided notion that language is logical.

breedmitch's avatar

I vote for example #1. (hey if it’s good enough for Shakespeare)

As to Monsoon’s example of switching back and forth. I don’t read it as hypothetical. From your examples I assume you do know the gender.

robmandu's avatar

Well, if Shakespeare can do it, it’s good enough for me.

(hi five @breedmitch!)



I’m nowhere anywhere near an intersecting universe where I might contemplate the possibility that any purported writing of mine would be considered alongside even the least of Shakespeare’s.

Ah, well… a man can always aspire to better himself even so.


For the record, you’ll probably see me continue to use s/he for the most part, unless I can recall and correctly implement @niki’s suggestion to pluralize the antecedent, which does seem the most graceful of solutions.

monsoon's avatar

What if I said, “How long will a person have to wait to restore a new iPhone? She may have to wait a few hours, or she may have to wait a few days.”

breedmitch's avatar

As soon as you say “she” I see a female.

If I say “How does a person know they’re smart? They didn’t buy an iphone today.” it allows you to picture a female and me to picture a male (or whatever each of us chooses). That’s truly gender neutral.

monsoon's avatar

But still grammatically incorrect. :)

Not to be rude in the slightest. This is the internet, so people can use that form and it would be totally gender neutral, just not correct english.

scamp's avatar

The flutherite went to buy an iPhone. But they were stymied in the process when Apple’s activation servers went off-line. For the moment, their iPhone is bricked.

What about leaving gender or plural/nonplural out altogether? For instance: The flutherite went to buy an iPhone, but was stymied in the process when Apple’s activation servers went off-line. For the moment, the iPhone is bricked.

Problem solved!

gailcalled's avatar

I may be repeating other answers, but the major culprit is “everyone.”

You start off merrily: “Everyone thinks that -oops, now what (he, she, they?)——is (are) correct.

The muddle probably originated with the Latin three genders of pronouns (or Greek, also.)

I like my writing to be as elegant (yet unclumsy) as possible so I avoid “everyone.”

The he/she or him/her gets really cumbersome. I will rework the sentence, as Niki and others have suggested, to make the antecedent plural.

My professional writer friends (one won a Pulizer) agree with this sneaky tactic.

morphail's avatar

@monsoon: it is grammatical English. It’s been used in the carefully published works of the best writers of English for hundreds of years. It’s part of the language of every native speaker. Don’t use it if you don’t like it, but don’t tell us that a feature of our native language is wrong.

Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English says “[Uses of singular they] are uses following a normal pattern in English that was established four centuries before the 18th-century grammarians invented the solecism. The plural pronoun is one solution devised by native speakers of English to a grammatical problem inherent in that language – and it is by no means the worst solution.”

ezraglenn's avatar

You could use gender neutral pronouns like ze (“zee”) and hir (“here”) for he/she and him/her respectively. These are the most common neutral English pronouns, but many others exist.

example: Ze tied hir shoes.

gailcalled's avatar

@Ezra: try that in English Comp at Bard and watch what happens? :_)

EG———->ESL class.

scamp's avatar

I am making a correction of my post. The last sentence reads
For the moment, the iPhone is bricked

I should have changed is to was, so it reads: For the moment, the iPhone was bricked

gailcalled's avatar

From my really smart professional writer friend;

“Be a coward, reverse it… Pronouns are a problem for everyone!”

scamp's avatar

I may not be really smart, but I do know how to turn the other cheek.

Answer this question




to answer.
Your answer will be saved while you login or join.

Have a question? Ask Fluther!

What do you know more about?
Knowledge Networking @ Fluther