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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » he/she/it/they

   
Author Topic: he/she/it/they
pantros
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When writing non-gender specific fiction, what is the proper pronoun for a non gender specific individual?
He? She? They? He or she? (why does he come first?)

And, are these rules different in non-fiction?


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Beth
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In spec fic, you can make up the rules for the world you're working in.

In non-fiction, there are various schools of thought about what's right. Some argue for "they" as a non-gender-specific third person singular. Some argue for "he." Some argue for "he or she" or other awkward workarounds. Read the publication you're considering and find out what their conventions are, and write it that way.


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Survivor
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There are plenty of nouns that indicate an unspecified person in most languages, and English isn't an exception. You don't need to resort to a pronoun in such a case. It used to be correct to simply use "he" in that case, then politics intervened and it became popular to use "they", which is simply incorrect. "It" can be used where the person really doesn't have gender (not just has an unspecified gender but specifically doesn't have a gender). It certainly shouldn't be used for a person in any other case. Even this case may not be acceptable, though, since "it" in English is often used to distinguish between persons and non-persons more than to indicate lack of gender.

"He" is still definitely correct, but will get you in trouble some places. Alternation with "she" is accepted, but incorrect and confusing, since it clearly implies that two different individuals are being referenced. "He or she" is correct and accepted but is clumsy and cumbersome, it also tends to emphasize that the subject being discussed could be of either gender (but does not allow for an ungendered person, which "he" does).

If I feel I can get away with it, I use "he". If not, I just don't bother using a pronoun. They're supposed to save you effort, after all, not put you into a bind.

If you're writing dialogue in a contemporary setting, then probably "they" will be used, anything else would be unusual. If you aren't writing dialog, there seems to be very little need for a gender indeterminate pronoun. If you're writing non-fiction, you don't want to lean too heavily on pronouns anyway.


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Christine
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I lmost manage to find a way to write around this issue. A truly non-gendered entity (like an alien) is "it" but otherwise I just don't let myself get into it. I can't say exactly how I avoid it, I just do. Perhaps if there was a specific example I could offer a specific solution.

Let's see...what are some situations where this happens?

1. There is a person present, but we do not know if the person is male or female....something like "The hooded figure..." this is also more descriptive than inserting a pronoun and can give you a sense of movement and mood.

2. There is a person that is not present, whose identity and gender is unknown, such as the person who put the dead body in the middle of the park...."The killer..." If you're referencing a person at all, why? The things you do know about them can become their descriptor far better than a pronoun.

3. You're not referencing a specific person at all, but could be talking about anyone. I keep running across this in parenting magazines talking about how to raise your baby. They tend to rotate between he and she. "At two months, he may start to sleep longer through the night." "At three months, she..." I think this is silly and wonder why they need to reference gender at all. How about "your baby" or "the baby". That is what we're talking about, after all.


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apeiron
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Is there any way you can use 'people' instead of 'person'? That's the easiest way around the problem.

For the picky reader, using anything but 'he or she' will bug the heck out of them. But you can't please everybody. But I personally don't have any qualms with using 'they' as a singular pronoun. In most cases, it is obvious who they is referring to, and I've found most readers don't even notice when I do it. Perhaps this is because this practice has become more common in spoken English?

Out of curiousity, did you notice the first sentence of the last paragraph used 'them' to reference a single 'reader'?

[This message has been edited by apeiron (edited November 02, 2005).]


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AstroStewart
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One of my english teachers in high school made a point of drilling in our heads that the *correct* use of pronouns for a gender unknown person is "he" and anything else is simply incorrect, grammatically. Ever since then I've tended to just stick with that. I don't feel it necesarry to try give myself a headache worrying over he/she/they, and I don't feel like changing the structure of the english language just to be politically correct.

When it boils down to it:
"they" suggests multiple people, not just one.
"she" suggests that the subject is, in fact, female, not that the gender is unknown. (In my mind at least.)
"it" conveys the non-human, or non-person nature of the object.
That only leaves "he," which can mean either a male or gender unknown.

(just my $.02)


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Gnomeinclaychair
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Yep, according to the Queen's English, "he" is a neutral pronoun.

However, common usage tells us that "they" is becoming more and more accepted.

On the other hand, a clever writer can avoid the problem entirely (most of the time) by reorganizing the sentence. Er, which is what I do. Er, which may be the sole reason I think it's clever.

I'm gonna shut up now.


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Robyn_Hood
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I think someone (perhaps MaryRobinette?) mentioned the pronoun "thon" sometime in the last year. Apparently it is a gender-neutral pronoun, but it isn't common usage anymore.

Other than that, "he" is the most acceptable gender-neutral pronoun. I have seen people who will alternate between "he" or "she", but NOT in the same sentence, paragraph, or to refer to the same unidentified person. I've only seen the flip-flop approach used when multiple examples are being given and the writer or speaker uses one pronoun for one example and the other for the next example.


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Pyre Dynasty
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"They" referring to a single person gives me the impression of multiple personalities. Try to see how "One" works? One would think that would work.
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Gnomeinclaychair
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"One" always sounded kinda stilted to me. Aloof and pompous. Not bad if you want that effect.

Nah, part of the beauty of the English language is that there are so many different ways to say the same thing. If "he" sounds good use it. If the gender implications bug ya, don't.


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MaryRobinette
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No, no! I didn't suggest thon, but I don't remember who did. I did have this problem though, of needing a gender-neutral pronoun for a person. In my case I was "translating" from a language that only had one word for he/she/it and it was a plot point that the character reading the translation assume that it refered to a male when it was referring to a female.

I finally gave up and dealt with it a different way.


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wbriggs
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When I hear "Each person who came had their reasons," I immediately think, who's this "they" that had reasons everyone shared?

Feminist English forbids "Each person who came had his reasons."

"Each person who came had her reasons" suggests an all-female group.

There's no solution. When I'm cowardly, I rewrite it as "All those attending had their own reasons" or "I had my reasons; so did everyone." When I'm not, I go with standard English: "he."


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Elan
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I'm just grateful we are writing in English and only have to fuss about gender a small part of the time. It's a nightmare trying to remember the appropriate gender of objects in Spanish, ie:la mesa, el camino, la puerta, etc.
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Survivor
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You don't need the possessive pronoun at all, because the sentance already says that the person had the reasons in question. In fact, it says nothing else.

"Each person who came had reasons." Actually, I would have just cut the sentance. Who would have come without a reason? Do you mean to say that the reasons were good, or at least plausible? Then say that. Don't agonize over a sentance that says nothing except establishing that, "yes, people do things for reasons." I don't even like the plural there. After all, a lot of people do something for one main reason, and that's usually the case when the action is unusual enough that you would need to specify that there was a reason for it.

Anyway, rant over. I was just pointing out that you could have said as much by saying nothing at all.


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luapc
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I'm wondering if age has something to do with this. I'm older, and was taught in no uncertain terms that 'he' is the appropriate pronoun to use for an unknown gender. And, true to form at the time, everything was writen using 'he' for this. Recently though, I've noticed some younger writers and newer stories using 'she' which always irks me greatly.

I'm wondering if it's not so much what's correct, as it is the age of the target market readers and editors. Older editors and readers may prefer 'he' like I do, while a younger person may not care, or even prefer 'she'.


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Corky
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I remember the first time I read a piece of nonfiction in which "she" was used instead of "he."

Even though I really have no problem with "he" being used as the neutral pronoun, reading something with "she" used that way was amazing to me. It felt as if what I was reading actually could be applied to me. It was intimate; it connected; it sort of blew my mind.


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nimnix
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I think we should just use "it". It has the unique ability to offend all equally, and it works sometimes. And I would have much more entertainment in my life if I saw that.

"It shouted obscenities at me for 3 hours, offended for a reason I couldn't comprehend." I so want to use that somewhere. Of course, if someone's shouting obscenities at you, you tend to know what gender it is. Most of the time.

The few times I've seen "it" used that way, it was specifically to portray contempt or disrespect to the person and the gender. No one's going to be able to come up with an acceptable third-person gender-neutral pronoun that people will actually USE.

(Yes I am joking, sort of. Actually using "it" this way would get very confusing.)


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franc li
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I just used 'eirself in a sentence. But it was just a forum post. I thought of using "umself" but that just sounded dumb. I usually go with "them" or "it" but if I ever was stuck with the problem in a cover letter or resume I'd structure the sentence around "oneself" or "his or herself". And yes, "his" would be first. If it were for some kind of legal document, it would just be "his", which I believe is technically correct.
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Robert Nowall
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Well, how about making something out of the first letters of "she," "he," "it," and "they?"
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pantros
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franc li
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I think I actually saw that in a list of deadly composition errors that my AP English teacher gave us fair warning about. But it was probably just s/he. Another one I definitely remember is "He or she, as the case may be." That was an instant F.
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Survivor
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But it's so...lyric
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keldon02
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Try writing it the way you want as if there were no such thing as P.C.
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