I’ve been stop-start-reading the revised edition of Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies, a gift from my brother; it’s an encyclopaedic and thoroughly enjoyable account of Horror on Screen Since the 1960s, as the subtitle has it.
One chapter traces the development of the haunted house genre in film and literature, and upon reaching the landmark release of Rosemary’s Baby it offers an eye-catching usage:
There is no ghost, except the angry shade of Beethoven invoked by the unseen pianist’s stumbling attempts to get through Für Elise, but the Bramford [Rosemary’s apartment building] does have a Past. Ira Levin refined the parallel plot, a device that has been used in most subsequent haunted house films. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to his/her new home, he/she does a little detective work and pieces the place’s evil past together from newspaper morgues, friendly occultist know-alls, and ageing eyewitnesses.
This use of his/her . . . he/she I found a bit halting and self-conscious. It took me out of the text, and not simply because I attend closely to pronoun use. Instead of conveying the author’s intent discreetly, it’s orthographically conspicuous enough to be distracting. Especially because it’s repeated: one instance might sneak by, but two is a pattern that draws unwanted attention.
I’m going to rework the line in question a few times, so I’ll give each version a number. Here’s the original again:
1. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to his/her new home, he/she does a little detective work…
He/she and his/her are more equitable than generic he and his (which I see depressingly often), but they still give men precedence of position. S/he avoids this, but only by fragmenting she and leaving readers with something weird-looking and effectively unpronounceable. Simple reversals (she/he) are occasionally used, or the slash may be replaced by a conjunction: she or he, he or she.
But there’s another problem. All of these options implicitly adopt a gender binary that excludes people who do not identify as either he or she (see my post on Mx). Writing manuals and style guides commonly note that he/she is awkward or clunky, particularly when repeated, but they seldom acknowledge its politics. One of the reasons I support singular they is that it circumvents this restrictive paradigm.
In Newman’s text, however, simply replacing his/her and he/she with singular their and they could mislead readers into thinking that the new home is the (plural) supernatural forces’, not the (singular) protagonist’s:
2. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to their new home, they do a little detective work…
Readers would soon disentangle the discrepancy and arrive at the intended meaning, but they shouldn’t have to work to do so. The phrase clinging to their new home is especially likely to cause momentary miscues, since it attaches naturally to supernatural forces but its their has a different (and incongruently singular) antecedent: the protagonist.
If we want to avoid using his/her and other binary constructions, then we have to incorporate singular they and modify the antecedents accordingly, or else recast the line some other way (while interfering minimally with the original text). So let’s look at what’s involved.
The supernatural forces described are often plural in these stories, so forces can’t simply be changed to force, power, entity, etc., all of which suggest a solitary spook. A more abstract phrase like supernatural evil or supernatural curse could carry the gist without that implication, but they indicate a malevolent force (and in the case of curse a certain type of one), which isn’t necessarily accurate.
Neutral agency, though singular in denotation and chiefly so in connotation, may do a better job of permitting plural or complex interpretation in the context. Then if we pluralise protagonist we have they referring to it unambiguously:
3. While the protagonists are being overwhelmed by the supernatural agency clinging to their new home, they do a little detective work…
Of course, plural protagonists implies more than one occupant of the haunted house, which might not be the case – unless we take it to mean protagonists of these scenarios in general rather than a specific example. The construction may also draw fire from pedants who say its roots mean there can be only one protagonist per play (or by extension film, etc.), but this objection should be promptly dismissed.
With plural protagonists in place we can try reinstating forces instead of agency and trusting that readers will automatically ignore the slight ambiguity:
4. While the protagonists are being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to their new home, they do a little detective work…
Alternatively, we could reposition in their new home to associate it more directly with the protagonists:
5. While the protagonists in their new home are being overwhelmed by supernatural forces, they do a little detective work…
6. While the protagonists are being overwhelmed in their new home by supernatural forces, they do a little detective work…
This loses the adjective clinging, unless it’s reinserted (rather unidiomatically) before supernatural forces. But apart from that it’s a workable solution.
Other approaches include replacing the first pronoun with a definite article and the second one with the repeated antecedent:
7. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to the new home, the protagonist does a little detective work…
This does not read well, though. ‘Elegant variation’ would prevent the discordant repetition, but at the considerable risk of causing confusion:
8. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to the new home, the resident does a little detective work…
Right now I like numbers 4 and 6 best. No. 4 loses none of the original’s structure or nuances, but carries a small risk of short-lived ambiguity. No. 6 is free of ambiguity and loses only the word clinging.
I’ll review this tomorrow in case I think differently or devise another acceptable strategy. If you have a suggestion, or a particular preference for one of the options I’ve outlined, I’d be interested to hear it.