Ack! Singular Nouns with Plural Pronouns

When Thomas Jefferson wrote “…all men are created equal,” was he deliberately excluding women? Of course he wasn’t! In his time, ‘men’ was a gender neutral and acceptable reference to mankind–male and female. Okay, I grant you that given the state of women’s rights, including voting rights, in Jefferson’s time, some may argue that he wasn’t thinking of women when he wrote those words at the age of 33. But I think he was. And as far as equality in the United States goes, we accept that the United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution apply equally to men and women. But that was then. This is now.

Here’s something that aggravates me. I’ve mentioned it to others, and it seems that this type of grammar butchery is becoming (sadly) accepted. In an effort to avoid “sexist” language (that is, changing written and spoke English to be gender-neutral), an awkward pattern of using improper pronouns has come about. Why aren’t others as aggravated by this as me? Maybe I’m being nit-picky… I don’t think I am.

Here’s an example:

“When a developer works hard, he will learn much.”

The above, these days, is often considered sexist language. Whereas in times past, the singular pronoun he, per the English language, was assumed to be gender-neutral. Beginning somewhat before my time, such an assumption was deemed politically-incorrect and sexist. Fair enough. A more politically and socially correct standard grew.

“When a developer works hard, he or she will learn much.”

This example passes the gender-neutrality test, and it is grammatically correct, but it seems clumsy. In an effort to avoid such clumsiness, some began swapping pronouns, sometimes using she, sometimes using he (within the same article, book, journal, etc.). Grammar Girl has called this practice “Whiplash Grammar” in an article addressing this subject. Personally, I think it is much worse than the awkward “he or she” substitution. As a reader, I find myself wondering who the heck we are talking about.

Some people have substituted the non-word he/she:

“When a developer works hard, he/she will learn much.”

Hmm… This may be okay for an article, but it isn’t something I’d like to see in a book, especially fiction. I cannot pinpoint exactly why I don’t care for this. It just seems messy. In general, a work of fiction can avoid this problem, as the gender of the subject is not likely unknown. All to often I see examples such as this being used:

“When a developer works hard, they learn much.”

Wait just a minute! Developer is a singular noun. They is plural antecedent. Every English teacher I ever had would be quick to point this out, wouldn’t they? Why then have I seen this noun/pronoun confusion used everywhere? I see it in advertisements. I hear it on the radio and TV. I see it in print that has been edited and re-edited! It is a bloody linguistic massacre, and yet it is acceptable enough to pass through an editor’s cautious eye!

I understand the desire to avoid the double-pronoun solution. There is a much better way to handle this. For my final example, a sentence that is proper, gender-neutral, and not the least bit clumsy:

“When developers work hard, they learn much.”

Voila! (Was that so hard?)

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4 thoughts on “Ack! Singular Nouns with Plural Pronouns

  1. How do you like the blended pronoun s/he? I default to plural. However, you cannot use media and advertisers as a guideline. Remember, they cannot handle few vs less! This has also become rampant and the word few seems to be disappearing from our vocabulary.

  2. S/he seems okay. I guess as a male it is difficult for me to understand how exclusionary the use of male pronouns for general identification may genuinely feel exclusionary. Most languages in the world are not gender neutral. I can’t imagine, for example, trying to make Spanish sound gender neutral. My approach is to rewrite, when possible, to avoid the problem entirely. But when it doesn’t make sense to do so, I default to “he or she.” Throwing a / in the middle of a word seems strange.

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