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It’s all Betty Friedan’s fault. Around the 18th century, grammarians decided that since indefinite pronouns like “everyone,” “someone,” each,” and gender neutral nouns like “person,” “friend,” and “student” used singular verbs, the pronouns following them should also be singular. The fact that English doesn’t have any gender-neutral third person singular pronouns didn’t bother them. All the grammarians were men, as were all the important people in society, so their obvious choice was to use the masculine forms to refer to both men and women. Many of us “older folk” grew up with teachers who pounded that pattern into our heads and never gave it another thought.

Then along came the women’s movement of the 1960s, fueled by Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique, and demonstrations — lots of them — demanding equal status for women in American society. English language users caved to the pressure. It was no longer politically correct to use he, him, and his to refer to both men and women. But what could be used instead? Aye, there’s the rub!

Various options began to emerge. One was to use a combined form, he or she (sometimes written he/she or s/he). Example: The instructor spent many hours each week planning his or her classes. Another option was to rewrite the sentence using all plural words. Example: The instructors spent many hours each week planning their classes. Other English users decided to resurrect a structure from the 16th century that ignored the mismatch of singular with plural. Example: The instructor spent many hours each week planning their classes.

A final option I’ve seen occasionally involves using he, his, and him alternately with she and her –sometimes within the same document — in order to give both sexes equal consideration.

My answer to the dilemma is to use whatever form you’re most comfortable with. Over time, one option may emerge as the dominant one or several choices may prevail. Language, after all, is the creation of the people who use it. As long as it remains stable enough to communicate ideas, feelings, and dreams clearly, English will continue to reflect the norms of the society that uses it and will evolve as needed.

Comments are welcome!

For a further discussion of this issue, go to http://www.blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2012/06/he-or-she-versus-they/

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