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The Epicene Solution

Abstract

Once upon a time, in formal writing pronouns were expected to behave in strict accordance with their antecedents: “The patient should pick up his prescription.” “The surgeon completed her training.” “Everyone should complete his or her form.” But what if you didn’t know if the patient was male or female? What if the surgeon preferred a nonbinary pronoun? And what about the clunky “his or her” construction (not to mention the impossibly awkward “s/he”) when an indefinite pronoun is the subject (“anyone,” “everyone,” “someone,” and the like)? One solution, no longer viable, was to select a catchall gendered pronoun—usually the generic “he”—to stand in for all individuals regardless of their actual gender or pronoun preference. This approach to the need for a third-person singular pronoun has largely been discarded as sexist language (and in many cases just flat-out wrong): “Each patient needs to get regular checkups, including visits to his primary care physician and gynecologist.” Sometimes it’s simple enough to reword a sentence by using the plural without affecting the meaning: “A researcher should cite her sources” could become “Researchers should cite their sources.” However, rewriting is not always possible or desirable, and performing linguistic acrobatics just to avoid violating a grammar rule can be time-consuming and lead to unclear or awkward prose. Enter “they.” Because the English language does not have a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun readily available, speakers and writers have often turned to the handy “they” to fill this need. “They” is a good solution because it’s […]

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