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.
b) his or her
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.
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.