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MM: Not Amateur Nouns

MM: Not Amateur Nouns


You know what a Pronoun is, right?

Right–a noun that has lost its amateur status.

But seriously, folks…

A pronoun is a word used to replace a noun. According to Michael Strumpf and Auriel Douglas,

All ears crave variety. A varied array of words and sentences is candy for our brains. Repetition and overuse are chopped livers and spoons full of castor oil. … The discriminating listener cringes at hearing one noun used twice in the same sentence or even twice in consecutive sentences.

The pronoun has no identity in and of itself. Instead, it takes meaning from the context in which it is found. The meaning usually comes from the word for which the pronoun stands, called its antecedent. … Since pronouns take the place of nouns, the can fill any role that nouns might fill.

Pretty much says it all, right? So I’ll just be going … What? You want more infomation? Happy to! We’ve talked about “person” as regards verbs. We’ve even discussed the Objective case. So today, we’ll talk about pronouns’ gender.

It is only in the third person that gender really comes up. You can say, “Hey you, over there, in the high heels,” and presumably be talking to a person of the feminine persuasion, but the pronoun itself is entirely neutral. Similiarly, when you say, “I buttoned my shirt,” it might matter to you whether you are male or female (if only because it affects the side of the shirt the buttons are on), but it has no bearing on the actual sentence whatsoever.

But when using the third-person pronouns … well, then gender does matter.

  • He and His refer to a man.
  • She and Hers refer to a woman.
  • It, They, and Them are neutral.

This opens up another can of worms, though. You know the one I’m talking about, right?

What do you do when you need to refer to a singular third person pronoun, but you don’t know the gender? 

  •  If anyone finds the letter in this bottle, ____ should contact the police.
  • I saw a cat being chased by a squirrel and ____ looked so embarrassed!
  • When teaching your dog to sit, make sure that ____ is paying attention.

Yeah. It gets kind of awkward.

You can sometimes work around this by using “It.” Chances are you don’t know the embarassed cat’s gender, so you could say “It looked” with perfect justification. The tricky part, though, is that animals aren’t likely to be offended by being referred to as an “it.” People are a little more sensitive. You wouldn’t refer to your mother as an “it,” would you? Of course not. But you can’t assume that all permission slips going home from school are going to be signed by a mother. “Make sure she signs your permission slip” is not going to be an acceptible directive for a teacher in today’s politically-sensitive age.

You can use the “He or She” thing, where you use both options with an “or” or a slash in between. “If anyone finds this letter, he or she should contact the police.” For a single statement, this works fine, but gets unwieldy when writing anything more than 1 or 2 sentences.

Some people just use “They” or “Their”–figuring that going gender-neutral is more important than matching a singular verb. “When teaching your dog to sit, make sure that they are paying attention.”

Or, you can just use “He.” This was the default pronoun for centuries. Unless the writer was specifically speaking about something that women did (“When experiencing labor contractions, she should….”), it was more or less assumed that it would either be a man, or that women–being the “lesser” sex–would just quietly accept second place. This worked fine for centuries, before Women’s Lib.

See? I told you this wasn’t for amateurs.

What do YOU do for this tricky, tangled web of a grammatical issue??

6 thoughts on “MM: Not Amateur Nouns

  1. John Roach


    Just kidding. If I can’t avoid the situation entirely by recasting the sentence, I usually alternate between “he” and “she.”

    If you’re not personally concerned about sexist language, the whole issue can be irritating, but rule No. 1 in writing is “know your audience,” and some can be seriously put off by it.

    John Roach’s last blog post..Semicolon: The forgotten mark

  2. Judy H.

    I usually try to rewrite the sentence so I’m not using a pronoun. “If you find the letter in this bottle, please call the police!” “I saw a cat being chased by a squirrel, and the cat looked so embarrassed.” “When teaching your dog to sit, make sure Rover is paying attention.” But otherwise, I’m with John.

    Judy H.’s last blog post..Kitten Alarm Clock

  3. --Deb Post author

    Most of the time I’m more or less okay with “he” as a default program. I’m not a rabid feminist by any means! But it certainly would be handy to have a gender-neutral pronoun to use … the trick would be finding one we could all agree on, and, well, good luck with THAT!!

  4. Julie Roads

    Love the joke at the top…I also end up on the rewrite side of things – and I love Judy’s idea of putting in a classic name, like Rover. I’ve also used ‘you’ as in ‘If you find the letter in this bottle, you should contact the police.’ – by the way, that’s a rather morbid example you came up with!!!

  5. --Deb Post author

    Glad somebody appreciated the joke … And, I can’t think of bright and sunny examples ALL the time. Honestly, the examples are often the hardest part….