By Elizabeth 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.