Gender Neutral Language

What’s wrong with the following sentence?

Each student must have their own book.

If you said it is grammatically incorrect because of pronoun agreement, you’re correct. Each is singular, but their is plural. You might be tempted to correct this sentence like so:

Each student must have his own book.

But now the sentence is politically incorrect or, more specifically, it is using sexist language. It is no longer acceptable to assume all students, or all readers for that matter, are male. How then, can we revise the sentence so that it is both politically and grammatically correct? One possible solution is shown below:

Each student must have his or her own book.

This solution corrects the error in pronoun agreement in a politically acceptable manner. Some may argue that his or her is an awkward, cumbersome construction, but non-discriminatory language trumps eloquence, especially in writing communities that value equality and social progress. (Some argue–from a feminist perspective–that we should use Each student must have her book for the same length of time that the male form was used.)

The his or her solution has met a new challenge, however. We’re now aware, based on the experiences of the intersex and transgender communities, that not everyone falls discretely into one gender or another. Thus this solution is now considered genderist. A possible solution to this is to reword the sentence to use a plural subject and a plural possessive pronoun:

All students must have their own books.

Another solution, which is gaining momentum within the writing community, is to employ gender-neutral pronouns such as ze and hir, in which case our sentence would read:

Each student must have hir book.

Because of all the difficulties caused trying to achieve pronoun agreement with a genderist language, and the frequency with which pronoun disagreement is appearing in print, it’s now become more or less acceptable to use Each student must have their own book. 

For more about this topic, read the New York Times article, “All Purpose Pronoun.”

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6 responses to “Gender Neutral Language

  1. Lydia Garcia

    I strongly agree with the fact that sexist language should not be used. The abov examples provide two differnet way that writers can use to better express themselves when describing soemthing. These solutions open a door to view things in awhole different way.

  2. Noah Shepherd

    I’m almost certain that other languages do this and that it is not considered sexist. If I’m not mistaken, in Spanish, the masculine form is used for groups consisting of both males exclusively, and groups of both males and females. While English certainly isn’t Spanish, if this were a case of sexism, why is it that other cultures (who have also been influenced by the ideas of feminism) find it perfectly acceptable to use that format when both genders are included in statements similar to “Each student must have his book”? It seems to me to be a little bit nit-picky about our common use of language.

    Another example is our use for terms such as “the race of man” or “mankind”. We all realize that this is an expression for human kind, whether male or female. But because females aren’t nominally included, should we then change it to “the race of male and female homo sapiens”? Or perhaps “Manwomankind”? I really don’t feel this is much of an issue to be getting ourselves worked up about.

  3. Liza Sabo

    I agree with Noah. General terms such as mankind does not have to comply with proper use of non-sexist language. As defined in Merriam-Webster dictionary, mankind is the human race; the totality of mankind including male and female and everything in between I would say. And I am not saying this because I am being non-sensitive about the issue of the sexist language but I am confident that I am included in the term “mankind”.
    Coming from another culture with the a strong male dominance over a lot of issue, the use of non-sexist language in daily and academic communication did not make the change of male dominance especially in politics. The collective action of people that made the non-violent People Power a part of history in Asian politics and society. In 1986, one South East Asian country elected the first woman President in Asia. The change not caused by the words used or the politically correct non-sexist language but by the deeds and action of the country that took place.
    When speeches are heard, people listened without critic of whether the rights words addressed the many man and woman in the crowd. When articles are written and read, people cared less of whether the message speaks to a man or a woman but to the fact that they should unite as mankind and not as woman or man.

  4. For anyone in class that day, this topic certainly evoked some touchy emotions. That in it self leads me to believe that the politically correct way is the best/safest route to take. When we students go out into the business world, what seems like a small detail to us could be nothing less than offensive to someone else.
    Aside from personal views on the matter, one can agree than we students are the most progressive thinkers on any of these issues, which is why I think it is important to practice what society considers to be the right way.

  5. Robin Nickell

    I would hold that written language must eventually (though certainly not in all ways) conform, to some degree, to spoken language and social convention. Our language formed in a sexist society, making it cumbersome and complicated to use non-sexist terms. I think “their” and its related words ought to become accepted in written language, as it does not spark confusion or discomfort when read. Even those in the LGBT community who are gender neutral tend to prefer “they” and “them” over the alternative “ze,” which was only created for grammatical propriety.

  6. Paul Chin

    I think in this day and age it is very important that we avoid sexist language. There is a widespread acknowledgement of equality between men and women. Nowadays you don’t hear people saying ‘actress’ anymore, but instead people say ‘actor’ to both men and women. Also avoiding sexist language when one speaks to an audience, the audience would then be able to better relate to and feel more involved with what the speaker is talking about. Today there are many people who identify themselves differently with gender and sexuality, so avoiding sexist language can also remove this ‘oppression’ from people from different backgrounds and identity. Without sexist language every human individual is equal.

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