By Elizabeth Anne Hull

Elizabeth Anne Hull. Photo by Barb Knoff.

Anne Hull

According to AAUW, since the 1990s, a hot topic in the field of college-level feminist/gender studies is dealing with gender-specific pronouns when discussing unknown persons. (Feminists don’t all read SF, so they might not realize that Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue addressed the situation from a linguist’s perspective in the previous decade.)

Pronoun/antecedent agreement is a perplexing grammatical problem that I’ve dealt with since I began teaching freshman composition at Loyola University Chicago in the late 1960s.

Loyola being a Jesuit university, you might well understand the conservative emphasis on grammar in assessing writing and assigning grades. In fact, the grading guidelines given us teaching assistants stipulated that a paper with too many mistakes in grammar, punctuation, spelling, and the conventions of Standard English — what we called basic skills — should be penalized in grading or even failed altogether, no matter how well that essay succeeded in other ways, such as organization, soundness of facts/research, clarity of thought, freshness of language, delightful sense of humor or other signs of original creativity, logical reasoning, and general effectiveness.

One cardinal sin of grammar was violating the principle that pronouns should agree in person and number with their antecedents and referents.

Mind you, it wasn’t a new problem then, either. A bit of history: this was one of the reasons that classes in English composition, usually known as 101 and 102 and sometimes called “bonehead English,” were introduced after World War II. Prior to that, professors could usually assume that only well-prepared students were admitted to colleges and universities (and legacies, of course, the sons of alumni, men who were happy with a “gentleman’s C”). From the late 1940s onward, however, GIs returning with their education benefits were enrolling in record numbers in pursuit of the American Dream

These were men (almost all were men) who, by and large, had never intended to go to college, but with the support of the grateful government and the encouragement of the American people, were willing to work hard and learn the proscriptive rules that prevailed in those early years. In hindsight, this may have been a large factor in the success of American enterprises in those years of the Greatest Generation.

Pluralizing the noun and using the plural pronouns will solve a lot of the agreement problems, but occasionally a singular noun seems essential for clarity, so I came up with my own solution, which allows the writer to be both grammatical and not seem forced. It’s simply to recast the sentence to avoid or eliminate the need for an antecedent. For example, instead of “Each applicant has to submit his own supporting documentation,” try “Each applicant must submit individual supporting documentation.”

Since English has many ways to phrase almost any idea, writers have the advantage over speakers in that they can reflect on both what they want to convey and how they choose to phrase the ideas. As true as it was in my youth and my first years of teaching, the mechanical aspects of writing are far less important than the other aspects of communication.

But it seems there will always be judgmental readers who are looking for reasons to reject the point the writer is trying to convey, and basic literacy skills are one easy way to eliminate those whose opinions we wish to ignore or discount. In my childhood, when someone rejected me, my mother always used to comfort me, “Consider the source.” But I still believe that it’s best not to alienate readers unnecessarily, and I will continue to try to avoid grammatical mistakes.

Spelling errors are another particularly easy way for those who disagree with us to reject what we have to say, because for the last several hundred years we have had standard spellings in dictionaries. Despite my tolerance for dyslexics, I admit I was comforted by fact that some young people are still trying to be correct in spelling in the age of texting.

In a record-setting regional contest of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, two outstanding students quickly eliminated the other competition and continued to spell word after word correctly. After they exhausted the list of over 60 words, local administrators requested that both children be allowed to advance to the national finals. But eventually the judges decided to continue the standoff, adding another 20-some more words, till seventh grader Kush Sharma finally beat fifth-grade Sophia Hoffman in an exciting match in Jackson County, Missouri. Let’s hope Sophia returns and tries again. The spirit of the Greatest Generation is not dead.


  1. Virginia Allen says:

    Just watching Jon Stewart’s interview with Ron Suskind about communicating with his autistic son — “perseverating” on Disney movies … using the often-repeated lines as a way out of or through the shutting down of communication.

    That (Disney) experience is so much like my experience with the issue of prescriptive grammar. I know I should just close the door and retreat into polite silence, but I keep perseverating.

    The familiar rule is that pronouns should agree with their antecedents in person, number, and gender. (Someone forgot his [pink] sweater!) Given a choice to violate either number or gender, the “proper” choice is to violate gender. Anyone who tries to “conform” and “play nice” by following the rules, instead of producing the long grammatical “singular ‘they'” construction — “Someone forgot their sweater” — produces a sentence displaying the “generic ‘he'” that is neither fish nor fowl, neither “proper English” nor “correct” in any linguistic sense.

    The “rule” is, I think, the first — certainly the most salient — of the false philology rules of the prescriptive grammar tradition.

    I used to always quote Ann Bodine’s 1975 article “Androcentrisism in Prescriptive Grammar: Singular ‘they,” Sex-indefinite ‘he,’ and ‘he or she'” from _Language in Society_ 4: 129-46. Now I quote Anne Curzan’s _Gender Shifts in the History of English_ (Cambridge UP 2012). I never mention my own book on the subject. That would be wrong.

    Recognizing the value of conformity. Wanting to be like everyone else. Wanting to fit in and obey the rules, which rules should I choose? I could care less, but the rule makers tell me I couldn’t possibly and so what to do? what to do?

    If nine x five is 45, I must be sentient.

  2. Dan Gollub says:

    Your blog helped inspire the following poem.
    Someone life is cruel to; someone life is kind to
    Battles the super villains of his/her imagination
    And ends up surviving
    Wonders if he/she is just a cog in the machine
    Or instead is an integral part of the woof and weave
    Travels like a turtle
    Enters the warps of light speed
    Writes the great, wondrous poetry that lasts across the ages
    (but that person isn’t me; at least not yet)
    Thinks there should be a better pronoun than his/her and he/she
    Awakens in the morning and is conscious and alive
    Is that person you?

  3. Elizabeth Hull says:

    You made me laugh, Virginia. I’m planning to be in Lawrence for the Campbell Awards next week; any chance you will be there? It would be great to see you there, or at Fred’s memorial service, if you can make that. Betty

  4. Elizabeth Hull says:

    Dan, I hope to see you at the memorial service as well. Betty

  5. Steve Leavell says:

    If I may ask–Any news on a revision/expansion/sequel to The Way the Future Was?