Language is confusing. A foreign language even more so than your native tongue. However, even learning to speak a language from a young age does not guarantee that you will understand all the specific grammar or seemingly bizarre patterns involved. English is notorious for words which are spelled differently but sound the same (homophones), words that are spelt the same but have several pronunciations (heteronyms) and even words that are spelled the same, pronounced the same but have different meanings (homonyms). Confused? There is more.
There has long been debate as to whether there should be a gender neutral pronoun (epicene) in the English language. At times the need seems clear. Long, wordy sentences with no clear decision as to who owns what can lead to unnecessary confusion and frustration.
Instead of “Somebody left his/her car in the multi-storey over night” why not create a word to fill the gap – “Somebody left *isr* car in the multi-storey overnight” ? I am not the first person to suggest that we should create a word to serve this purpose. Many suggestions have been made throughout history. Some, such as the contraction “thon” – a blend of “that” and “one”, were more acceptable to the general populous than others, but none have stuck. “His” was originally considered the gender-neutral pronoun for these situations but this can be argued as sexist – as could “her” were we to opt for the other direction. There is no happy medium.
What about in other languages? In French and Italian as well as other Romance languages, the possessive pronoun used is determined by the grammatical gender of the possessed object – “libro”= “book” and is a masculine noun. The phrase “il suo libro” can therefore either mean “his book” or “her book”. This is perhaps easier as the context is the key to any questions regarding the owner’s gender. In some languages, such as the Persian and Filipino languages, there are no grammatical genders; eliminating this issue altogether. Are there other languages where this is the case?
Perhaps it would not make much difference having a single word to replace the “his/her” construction. The fact that no suggestions have been maintained in the language over the years shows that English speakers have coped without one. Of course there is still the issue of grammatical inaccuracies when people are fed up of saying more words than they feel necessary. A common mistake in this situation, one I confess it took me a while to learn, is the use of “their” in place of “his/her”. “Somebody left their coat in the nightclub”, rather than “Somebody left his/her coat in the nightclub”. It seems a natural word to use in some ways but it is actually a plural pronoun. For example “They left their coats…” Its use as a singular pronoun is not a recent occurrence though. There are examples in literature dating back to the 14th Century. In fact some sources say that up until the 18th Century, when debates about whether this was “good grammar” came to the forefront, this construction was widely accepted.
So what about in the future? Will the pronoun “their” become the filler of choice for this gap in the English grammar or will “correctness” prevail? We would love to hear your thoughts.
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