Needed: New Singular Possessive Adjective Combining “his” and “her”

By Maeve Maddox

We had a vivid discussion around this topic on Monday, on the post Avoiding Stereotypes. Maeve’s view adds some light to the subject.

Once my son, still in high school, asked me to check a standardized exam he’d worked through at home in preparation for a test at school. One of the questions went something like this:

The writer must revise ________ work carefully.
a) their
b) his or her
c) his

I told him that the answer was c) his, but, to my astonishment, the answer key gave b) his or her as the correct answer. That’s when I discovered that I was behind the times when it came to the concept of oppressive gendered language.

Back then I was still on the same wavelength as E. B. White in the Third Edition of Elements of Style in which he deplored the “furor” over the use of the masculine pronoun to refer to nouns “embracing both genders.” Since there existed “no handy substitute” for it, White asserted that the masculine pronoun “has no pejorative connotations; it is never incorrect.”

White has been overruled.

The editors of the Fourth Edition of Elements acknowledge that “many writers find the use of the generic he or his to rename indefinite antecedents limiting or offensive,” and offer suggestions for avoiding it.

The problem arises from the fact that English pronouns and possessive adjectives must agree with their antecedents in gender as well as in number. (Antecedent=the word that the pronoun stands for or to which the possessive adjective refers.)

This rule of agreement works fine in a language that has grammatical gender, but in English, which long ago switched to a system of natural gender, the rule creates stress beyond measure in writers and speakers who wish to be grammatical in a politically-correct world, giving us such convoluted ungainliness as The writer must revise his or her work carefully. (In French “son travail” can be interpreted as either “his work” or “her work,” according to context. Very handy.)

Maybe someone could offer a prize for the creation of a universally-acceptable English singular possessive adjective with the dual meaning of “his-or-her.” And, while we’re at it, let’s invent a new personal pronoun that has the meaning “he-or-she.” (I know, we have “one” as in One never knows, does one? Too pompous.) The newly-coined words would have to be short and probably shouldn’t contain either of the letters “h’ or “s.”

The idea of inventing a new possessive adjective is not as far-fetched as it may seem. The possessive adjective its did not catch on in English until the sixteenth century. It won a place because English speakers instinctively rejected the earlier option seen in these lines from Shakespeare’s King Lear:

The hedge sparrow fed the cuckoo so long,
That it had it head bit off by it young.

Meanwhile, all we can do is avoid the problem any way we can.

Personally, I prefer
Writers must revise their work carefully.
to
A writer must revise his or her work carefully.

One other possibility: We can add a singular meaning to they and their. After all, we did it with you.

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25 Responses to “Needed: New Singular Possessive Adjective Combining “his” and “her””

  • Bob Mankoff

    Since the mid-eighties I have used “h’s” to denote “his or her.” Although this may be a little affected, there has been little negative fallout.

  • Dustin

    Apparently, “their” has a long history as an acceptable singular pronoun in English; it is only since the prescriptivist movements of the 19th century that it has been limited to the plural, with “he” being advanced as the proper generic pronoun. Given what we know about 19th century attitudes about men and women, it should come as no surprise that a healthy dose of misogyny informed that decision.

    In any case, we’re not too far off from “A writer must revise their work carefully” sounding correct and being commonly used. It’s already commonly used in speech, and increasingly in writing. But there’s that little voice in the back of our heads, the 3rd grade grammar teacher, that just won’t quit, will they?

  • Andy

    I’ve seen “hir” used. It seems affected to me, though.

  • Karl Gookey

    I would have said “The writer must revise their work carefully”. For as long as I can remember I’ve been using “their” for both genders. I can’t remember being told to use it but I must have been, I don’t know how else I would have started using it.

  • Zach Everson

    At a previous job, my boss insisted on using “their,” even though he knew it was incorrect. The rationale being that it was better to be wrong and wordy or offensive. I disagreed, but what did I know: I was just the editor

  • Leah Glass

    My 10th grade sociology professor insisted on our using “co” in the situation in which the singular possessive pronoun must remain gender neutral. After a semester it didn’t sound so weird, and it solved a lot of problems. Shame it isn’t likey to catch on.

  • Matthew K. Tabor

    I do and will continue to use “his” in these scenarios. I only use “his or her” when I need to take into account cadence which, in non-fiction education writing, isn’t often.

  • Jamie

    I would probably use their, but there is a growing camp pushing hir/hiz or soemthing similar for a neutral or ambiguous gender form. While as a transsexual I should probably be all for it, I admit I just can’t bring myself to use hir. I’ll stick with their which, while not ‘perfect’, is a lot better than either the implied indication of male dominance in his, or the contrived, unreal, awkward nature of hir.

  • Adam

    I always thought “thee” was the singular to they and their. Am I wrong?

  • Maeve

    Adam,
    “thee” is the object form of “thou” which is the archaic singular form of “you” (second person pronoun).

    “they” is the third person plural pronoun, subject form. (“them” is the object form)

    “their” is the third person plural possessive adjective.

    Examples:
    I love thee.
    They are the winners.
    Here are their medals.

  • Geoff Foster

    I come up against this a lot while editing. Sensitivity to usage can be context-dependent; for instance it might be more important to be non-sexist in a nursing PhD than in a mathematical work.
    And, in nursing, the default is often “her”, where it might be “his” or “him” elsewhere; even though male nurses actually exist.

    Whenever I can, I like to recast the sentence in the plural so I can use “they” and “their” and still sound natural.

  • logos

    I prefer to be grammatically correct rather than politically correct, so I always use the masculine pronoun when gender remains unestablished. If that offends someone, then it’s HIS problem.

  • Mari

    I must agree with Logos here. I can’t stand the use of “their” in the place of “his” or “her”.

  • Maeve

    Mari,
    I can’t either. But I must admit to taking the coward’s way out. I tend to change the subject to a plural when the problem presents. I gag at “his or her,” “he/she” and such expedients.

  • dorababu

    Good

  • byword

    ‘A writer must …’ and ‘The writer must …’ fail the primary purpose of generalizing because of their specificity, in that the first confines the case to any single writer and the second to a specific writer. ‘Writers must …’ is superior not only in its true generalization but also in its avoidance of supposedly ‘non-sexist’ contortions in what follows. The problem raised by ‘hir’ and ‘hem’, which still survive in dialects and some modern languages with Germanic antecedents—and are not therefore contrived in the way that ‘s/he’ is—is the lack of a cognate nominative for the pronoun.

  • TokeBernbole

    I think the very idea of being offended by the use of he rather than she is, in most context, sexism of it’s own. I think many writers will write based off their perspective. Unless the writer is purposely conveying a sexist point of view. Also who your demographic is for the book will effect the perspective. If your writing for female readers you might feel it better to lean toward her and she.
    But if one does have a good reason to be politically correct, I would say does it even need he/she/their at all? Could it not just say, “A writer must revise work carefully.” Does it need to be possessive? If that’s not correct, then rearrange the whole thing. “Writers must carefully revise work.” “Writers must be careful when revising work.” “Writers must take care when doing revisal work.” When using a specific case, I think he, or she, should be used when and how it feels natural to the writer. In the example above the sexism came with the exclusion of a choice d) (her), in which b, c, and d are all correct answers.

  • padiwagon

    what wrong with saying his or her??? it sound fine! just say it quickly? me hate hearing their as singular possesive. i don’t talk fancy like you does but its wrong!

  • billybobjoebob

    i looked on google for Greek and Latin roots and found a possibility:
    i propose that we use “unitain’ until an “official” grammatically and politically correct word is found. it combines the root “uni” meaning one and “tain” meaning hold. this should provide for a good alternative to “one’s”

  • Dave

    I like “himer” and “hiser.”
    Speaking of gender problems, how about using chairone when the sex of the chair person is not known? Examples: someone, no one, anyone.

  • Peter

    Ick. I used to know someone who insisted on using a set of idiosyncratic “gender neutral pronouns” starting with “x” (I can’t remember what they were–something like xe for he/she, xer for him/her, xis for his/hers–but probably not precisely those) — in all situations, not just when the referent was “generic”.

    I intend to stick with “he/him/his”, though.

  • Nathan

    I’m glad no one has made the argument that “he” can simply be gender neutral. The following is an example (not originally mine) used as evidence that “he/him/his” is not

    “When the average American wakes up, he turns off his alarm and starts his day. He will put on boxers or pantyhose. Next he will don jeans or a skirt, and put his keys in his pocket or his purse. Shaving or putting on lipstick is as second nature to him, and so he does it effortlessly.”

    Of the strictly singular options, I prefer switching between genders when the subject changes. So, the first example/general writer might be female, the next male, and so on (though not necessarily switching every time, as keeping track of that might be more bother than it’s worth).

  • Maryland, USA

    As an undergrad in the mid 1970s, I lobbied my friends to adopt “hin” to mean “his or her”. I mentioned this to my Bachelor’s Advisor, Joseph M. Williams (who would go on to write Style: 10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace). “We already have a perfectuly serviceable ungendered singular possessive,” he said: ‘their’.”

    Williams, who taught Theories of Language and History of the English Language, added that English is exceedingly resistant to new pronouns and new forms of address. The only modern exception, he noted, was Ms.

    A Southerner once explained to me that y’all is just Southern for “youse guys.”

    What I’d really welcome is a pair of ungendered words to signify “a male human” and “a female human,” regardless of age. For example, watching her husband and young son engage in a belching contest, a frustrated wife might sigh, “Just like two humanises!” I propose humanis and humana. Until then, about all we have is guys and gals.

  • Bruce

    I’m surprised no one’s mentioned the excellent piece on this very topic, on this very website, here: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/is-%E2%80%9Cthey%E2%80%9D-acceptable-as-a-singular-pronoun/

    Singlular ‘they’, ‘their’, and ‘them’ was good enough for Shakespeare, Dickens and Geroge Eliot, so it’s good enough for me.

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