Pronouns


Open your herstory texts to page 3...

Ah, pronouns, those pesky, troublemaking, rabble-rousing parts of speech. What would old Strunk have thunk about all the hoo-haw regarding the perceived offensiveness of generic male pronouns?

One thing’s for sure: the use of the plural “they” as a singular generic pronoun accounts for more bad writing than Robert James Waller and L. Ron Hubbard combined, and that’s really saying something. Consider the following:

If you’re getting together with an Internet date for the first time, you may want to meet them in a public place. You also may want to bring a friend for protection — making sure they understand that they should leave if you like them.

What? Who are we talking about here? In an effort to address readers of both genders, we’ve just muddied the linguistic waters to the point of ridiculousness. I understand the whole movement toward inclusiveness — we don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, after all. But let’s get over it already.

One way around this goofiness is to substitute “he or she” or “him or her.” This, of course, will weigh your prose down like an Acme anvil.

Another tactic is to alternate using masculine and feminine pronouns. This method can add to the convolution, plus you have to go through your document and count all the “he”s and “she”s up to make sure they’re absolutely equal.

Or you could write around it, avoiding pronouns altogether like vinyl car seats on a hot day, like so:

If you’re getting together with an Internet date, set the meeting for a public place. You may also want to bring a friend for protection — making sure the friend knows to leave if you like your date.

You could rewrite it by making the subject plural:

When you get together with your Internet dates for the first time, you may want to meet them in a public place. Bring a friend or two for protection, making sure they understand that they should leave if you like your date.

(None of it’s good writing, but I’m working with what I have, okay?)

I recently edited a client’s nonfiction book about identity theft, in which she used plural pronouns for singular subjects. After batting around several ideas, we came up with a fifth alternative. We included the following paragraph in the foreword:

Throughout this book, I refer to perpetrators using “him,” “he” and “his.” Women commit identity theft too, but in the interest of clarity and brevity, I use generic male pronouns.

Controversial? Certainly. Scandalous? Perhaps. But more importantly, we’re offending female identity thieves in a grammatically correct manner.

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2 Comments

  1. Great examples. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Using they and them instead of his and her is something I struggle with. In casual speech and blogging I break the rules again and again (always feeling bad when I do) but I hope it hasn’t crept into my novel writing…


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