When I write, I use “he” as a gender-neutral pronoun. It’s how I was taught, and I’ve known enough women who are smarter than I am who unapologetically use “he” that I haven’t been terribly self-conscious when I use it. Still, it is obvious that “he” is not gender neutral, and using it as the standard pronoun denies half of the human race.
The “s/he” or “his and/or her” attempts at gender neutrality are simply abominable. They announce, “I’m working so hard to be inclusive that I’ve destroyed the flow of my own sentence, and now you’re focused on my inclusiveness rather than my point.” Alternating between “he” and “she” has the same effect.
I despise the singular “they,” doubtless because I’ve been taught to despise the singular “they.” This article tells me I’m a horrible prescriptivist and pedant for holding this attitude. That, too, is part of my training in language use; besides, a certain prescriptivism and pedantry are useful in most areas of life. Singularly unconvincing is this note:
But The New Fowler’s, 3rd Edition, which carries on its front cover the subtitle “The acknowledged authority on English usage”, takes a neutral-to-positive stance on singular they, calling the issue “unresolved” but noting that it “is being left unaltered by copy editors” and that aside from pedants, “such constructions are hardly noticed any more or are not widely felt to lie in a prohibited zone.”
I have long been a copy editor, so I can tell you that too many copy editors know far too little about the proper use of their native language; they have a job title, not an aptitude. Those with the aptitude suffer their masters’ insistence that they stop marking or making changes in the copy as it annoys the writer and it takes too much time (and therefore money). Look at the numerous errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and basic fact in books and even the venerable New York Times. Speed + the bottom line = error.
I also disagree with what the author of the article has to say in the section on Equal Ambiguity. There is nothing ambiguous in examples 4 and 5. Examples 6a and 6b are ambiguous, as charged, and need help.
The piece is spot on, however, concerning the alleged gender neutral pronoun “he.” Here is an interesting essay about the history of searching for such an animal and the difficulties that lie in getting agreement to use one. Language changes only slowly and from the bottom up, and new forms cannot be imposed by fiat.
I have no new ideas to offer to settle the issue. I’ve told you what I do, although I am not fully comfortable with it. I will be greatly interested in your thoughts on the matter. And so, to the comments.