The missing epicene pronouns of English
This advertisement depicting a couple on a cruise ship says:
Where Everyone Gets What They Need
As a writer of English curriculum materials for kids, I’ve become incredibly sensitive to singular/plural agreement. I think demonstrating careful matching between subject and verb (or pronoun and antecedent) is particularly important in a place where plurals are often neglected (due to the influence of Chinese, which mostly doesn’t have plurals).
If I weren’t so sensitive, I might not have noticed that “they”, which is grammatically plural, refers to “everyone”, which—despite sounding vaguely plural—is grammatically singular.
We tend to be forgiving of this kind of thing, if we even notice it, because it’s hard to phrase the underlying idea any other way.
Shall we have a go? We can stick in singular pronouns, or we can make everything plural.
Where Everyone Gets What He Or She Needs
Where All People Get What They Need
Yuck. Neither of those is half as natural as the original, though it would help if in the second one “people” were changed to something like “travelers”.
It gets worse if there’s a possessive. Imagine if the sign said:
Where Everyone Gets What They Need On Their Holiday
Now we’ve got a whole new problem:
Where Everyone Gets What He Or She Needs On His Or Her Holiday
Where All Travelers Get What They Need On Their Holidays
The double pronouns are now even more cumbersome. No marketer cares enough about syntax to prefer the “or” version. Even I don’t like it.
Meanwhile, in the pluralized version you start to have problems matching up travelers and holidays. They don’t necessarily all need the same thing or go on the same holiday, but some of them do, so are we considering them as individuals or as a group? It’s ambiguous.
There exists Y such that for all X, X is at Y and X gets what X needs on X’s holiday.
Less ambiguity is exactly what we’d have if mathematicians wrote ad copy, and this precise version is lovely in its own way, but they don’t.
All this awkwardness is the fault of English for not having “epicene” (gender-neutral) singular pronouns—words that mean “he or she”, “him or her”, “his or her”, “his or hers” and “himself or herself”. We used to use masculine pronouns in a kind of universal sense, but whether or not the masculine pronouns are still intended to be heard as universal, they no longer are.
People have invented new pronouns to fill the gap, but unless and until some particular set catches on, we’re going to keep seeing the plural gender-neutral pronouns used as a singular ones.
I can accept singular “they”, and singular “them”, “their”, and “theirs” along with it, I suppose, but it will require a whole extra level of tolerant laxity for me to be able to countenance the ugly chimera “themself”. If “they” can be singular, surely “themselves” can, too!