When you talk about someone of an unknown gender, using the wrong pronoun can be offensive, especially if you’re using stereotypes to make a guess (“When you see your doctor, tell him about your rash,” or “Someone left her pink umbrella on the bus”).
So what’s a socially aware speaker to do?
Technically, you’re supposed to say something like “him or her,” “she or he,” or “his or hers.” As an English teacher, this is the method I swore my allegiance to when I recited The Syntactic Oath with my right hand raised and my left on a copy of Elements of Style. However, there are two problems I have with this approach.
First, saying “he or she” can come across as too formal (you’re not a legal document; you’re just somebody chatting with your friend or boss), or worse: pretentious. If your use of language creates a barrier between you and your audience, it doesn’t matter whether you’re technically right. What matters is how it affects your audience’s perception of you and your ability to connect with them. Will they be impressed by your proper but cumbersome pronoun usage? Possibly. Or will they be turned off by your subtly pedantic tone?
My other objection comes from a principle I write about often. By going with “him or her” instead of “them,” you’d be adding two extra words that don’t contribute to your message. Your audience probably already knows what you mean, so adding unnecessary words is a misdemeanor against brevity and effective language.
Ideally, the English language would have a gender-neutral singular pronoun appropriate for referring to people. Not only would this solve the “they” problem altogether, but a gender-universal pronoun would be inclusive of those who identify as transexual or gender-fluid (whose presence in social discourse is only going to grow with time). A gender-neutral singular pronoun would be perfect for everyone.
But we don’t have one, and until we do, you have a choice to make every time this situation comes up. My recommendation: Say “them.” It’s the most fluid and natural option, it’s commonly accepted, and it doesn’t usually require clarification.
But if someone uses the technically correct but awkward phrasing when talking to you, forgive them; then kindly refer them to this blog.
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