He/she finds his/her pronouns a problem

kim newman - nightmare movies - horror on screen since the 1960sI’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 cat and the canary 1927 - haunted house

Haunted . . . by sexism!

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…

or

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…

the cat and the canary 1927 - horrified woman

‘Singular they? TWO protagonists?!’

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.

[images from The Cat and the Canary, 1927]

33 Responses to He/she finds his/her pronouns a problem

  1. Vinetta Bell says:

    The protagonist, despite being overwhelmed by the clinging supernatural forces invading [or gripping] the new home, does a little detective work.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for this suggestion, Vinetta. But in the original text while is being used in the sense ‘During the time that’, not ‘despite’. This does not lend itself so readily to your approach without significantly altering the prose, which I’m trying to avoid or at least minimise.

      • Vinetta Bell says:

        We could change my “despite” to while; however, my revision robs the emotional power of the original version.

  2. The protagonist, while being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to their new home, does a little detective work…

    But really I think in this case “he or she” is best. (Though I’m usually a fan of single “they” – not for political reasons but because it often makes the text flow better. It’s just that here I don’t think it would make the text flow better.) (And I’m not convinced about changing protagonist to plural – it changes the feel of it too much in my view.)

    tl;dr: you picked a tough example here.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Placing the protagonist at the start of the sentence, as you and Vinetta have suggested, removes the need for the second of the two troublesome pronouns. But it detracts from the pace of the original syntax, which would be acceptable if it solved the problem, and I’m not sure that it does: in your rewrite their is now strongly ambiguous.

      Keeping protagonist singular would make readers less instinctively inclined to refer their back to it, the more so because the pronoun comes closely after (plural) supernatural forces. Using a definite article instead might help, but it’s not ideal. It reads a little oddly to me, and it implies prior reference to the home, which is not the case:

      The protagonist, while being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to the new home, does a little detective work…

      • Agreed on all counts. My feeble attempt at a rewrite was just an experiment: I don’t like what you’ve done – can I do better? I don’t like the way you tried to solve the problem, so is it possible to rewrite it without resorting to the plural “protagonists”? This is the best I could come up with, and it’s not very good at all.

        Which is why I think that in this case there isn’t an elegant solution, and if I had to edit this text I’d stick with the original, just changing “he/she” to “he or she” to make it feel less like form filling and more like something a person might actually say.

      • Stan Carey says:

        If the aim is to make it sound like something a person might actually say, I think singular they would be much more likely. In my experience he or she and its ilk tend to occur when someone is trying hard to sound formal and proper. And, as I’ve noted, these options are politically problematic in a way they isn’t.

  3. Bev Rowe says:

    The actual plural is often good. The sample texts could be written referring to “the protagonists” followed by a natural use of “they”.

    Not that I’m against the singular use of “they”. It is obvious, but not sufficiently acknowledged, that “you” is a good precedent in English for a plural pronoun that migrated to the singular.

    • Stan Carey says:

      If I’m reading you right, that means you would go with number 4 (which I also like, though it’s a little ambiguous). And yes, I find that the precedent set by singular you makes a good argument for singular they, or a good defence against some of the tired objections to it on the grounds of grammar. I even made this a tongue-in-cheek rule.

  4. Catbar UK says:

    “2. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to their new home, they do a little detective work…”

    This was no problem for me, so number 2 seems perfectly fine. I just naturally assumed that the ‘they’ referred to the singular protagonist.

    I’m pretty much all for the singular ‘they’, as I find, both visually and euphonically, that ‘he or she’ or ‘he/she’, if used more than once in succession, is just annoyingly jerky and cumbersome.

    If using the singular ‘they’ causes ambiguity in any way then I would try to change my wording and sentence structure.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Your last line gets to the crux of this post. In no. 2 the use of singular they does cause ambiguity, to my mind, and it’s interesting to hear that it causes none for you. I wonder how other readers find it.

      • Like Catbar, I don’t find the “they” ambiguous in this case.

        My only reservation is that beginning the sentence with “while” can make it unclear to the reader whether we’re talking about “while” in the sense of time or “while” in the sense of “although”. But maybe I’m overthinking it.

  5. Tom Freeman says:

    This is a tricky one. How about: “The new owner of the home, while being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to it, does a little detective work…” ?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Turning protagonist into new owner of the home and thus moving that information towards the start of the line certainly helps disambiguate it. As an editorial challenge I was trying to minimise changes to the original text, but there may not be a wholly satisfactory solution without more significant changes, such as along the lines you’ve proposed.

  6. Charles Martin says:

    Hello,

    It seems that “the protagonist”, in this case, does not refer to any particular person, in any particular book or whatever, but to an abstract ‘literary being’, and that we are dealing here with commentary on literature, and not with literature per se.

    So I think that the use of “he/she” is not so much a question of style, but rather of precision in meaning, and apparently also of ‘political correctness’.

    Whether we are dealing with a real person or not, there is an easy solution for the first instance of “the protagonist”, where “clinging to his/her new home” can simply be replaced with “clinging to the new home”. An attentive reader would certainly know to whom the home belongs.

    In the second instance, if the reader doesn’t necessarily know whether a specific person is being referred to, the author can just use “he/she” (which given the aforementioned suggestion, avoids the stylistic awkwardness of repetition), or can use “the protagonist”, which however may be a bit too legal, stylistically speaking, I must admit.

    But what is most important, given the context: meaning, style or political correctness?

    HTH,

    Charles

    • Stan Carey says:

      Clinging to the new home does not scan well for me, because it’s the first mention of the home, so who owns it is less clear than it would be with a relative pronoun. A single use of he/she is preferable to repeated use, but the phrase is already inherently awkward – and problematic on multiple other counts.

  7. Tim Martin says:

    2 and 4 are my favorites.

    I don’t mind the ambiguity all that much. I’m biased at this point because I’ve seen the original text, but I don’t know that I would have originally parsed “their” as describing the supernatural forces. If I had, the need to resolve that ambiguity is not a dealbreaker for me.

    7 and 8 read poorly to me because of the repetition of noun phrases with definite articles (“the supernatural forces” and “the new home”). Not sure if it’s the stress pattern or what, but it doesn’t flow.

    In 6, moving “in their new home” to follow “overwhelmed” also makes the sentence clunky for me. There must be some rule about putting the most important information first. I think the main idea in the original text is that the protagonists are being overwhelmed by supernatural forces – the fact that those forces are in the home is important but secondary to identifying the forces themselves. Putting the location ahead of the agent is (possibly) what makes this weird.

    Also, 6 (and 5) require a re-diagramming of the original sentence. Whereas the original is:
    “overwhelmed (by the supernatural forces [clinging to his/her new home])”,
    6 is:
    “overwhelmed (in their new home) (by supernatural forces)”.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks for this studied response, Tim. It’s possible that I’m overstating the potential for ambiguity, and that 2 is therefore more acceptable than I’ve suggested. Writing this post it soon became difficult to read each version with the fresh eyes necessary for unbiased judgement.

      I agree that 7 and 8 read poorly, though I think this has more to do with the choice of definite article over relative pronoun in the new home than with repetition of article-leading noun phrases.

  8. kathrynguare says:

    I hadn’t heard of “Mx” before, but the gender-neutral pronoun “ze” is becoming more popular, especially on college campuses – at least in the US. At my job this week we were discussing the duties of an as-yet undefined person for a job opening and we were all doing the “he/she” thing until someone suggested “ze”. Once we stopped being juvenile and giggling about it, we gave it a shot and found the transition actually felt pretty natural.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Kathryn: Of the great many proposals for an epicene pronoun, ze has attained greater usage and a higher profile than most. I’ve come across it several times in niche or in-group use. But compared with the standard pronouns, it has hardly made a dent. I suspect that the vast majority of English-language users have never heard of it, let alone encountered it, and on that basis it seems destined for continued obscurity. They remains the best bet in the long term.

  9. AndrewC says:

    I’d split the difference between 2 and 8:

    While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to the new home, they do a little detective work…

    I think in this case ‘they’ is fairly unambiguous.

    Alternatively, how about

    While protagonists are being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to a new home, they do a little detective work…

    This emphasises that this is a trope occurring across multiple stories

    • Stan Carey says:

      I prefer your first suggestion, with singular protagonist. The definite article in the new home reads a little strangely to me in the context, for reasons I’ve laid out in earlier comments, but I would still take it over his/her or some such phrase.

  10. I don’t follow why you spend so much time discussing versions with pluralised protagonists. If the point of the exercise is to consider how the original might be re-written, changing the number of protagonists strikes me as a diversion.

    I agree with what I take to be one of the main points of the post, though you don’t spell it out as explicitely as you might. If I were to compile a list of pros and cons of singular “they”, one of the cons would be that given an ambiguity between a singular and plural antecedent, there’s a tendency for the reader to default to the latter.

    Another con is that singular “they” tends to make prose feel less vivid, more abstract, compared to prose in which a default gender is used. Such issues are worth raising, because the world needs less argument about whether singular “they” should be used (which is not controversial in any meaningful sense, and anyone who thinks otherwise is simply wrong), and more discussion about exactly when and how it should be used (for which there is scope for legitimate disagreement).

    Antecedents aside, the sentence is subject to improvement. For example, if the protagonist is capable of doing detective work, they can’t really be all that overwhelmed, since to be overwhelmed is to be rendered incapable of coherent action. Two interpretations occur: either “overwhelmed” is hyperbolic (they are, one might say, inconvenienced), or else moments of overwhelmedness and moments of detective work are interspersed within the time period.

    Suppose I ignore the antecedent issue for a moment, and focus on improving the elegance of the sentence overall, making reasonable assumptions about the writer’s intent.

    While the protagonist struggles to retain composure in the midst of supernatural forces clinging to their new home, they seek refuge in detective work, and — with the aid of newspaper morgues, friendly occultist know-alls, and ageing eyewitnesses — gradually piece together the terrible events of the past.

    I’m not convinced that eliminating the minor antecedent ambiguity in this example is a priority for a good writer, as opposed to being an entertaining exercise. I doubt any reader would read the new home as belonging to supernatural forces unless that reader has something specific in mind: namely a demonic possession story in which the protagonist is the home. In the absence of preconceived ideas, any interpretation other than the intended one strikes me as contrived.

    But if you really want to, you could try replacing “new” with “recently purchased” and assuming the reader doesn’t expect supernatural entities to buy things. Or you could try some form of “their new home and the supernatural forces active within“. Do either of these suggestions inspire any further thoughts?

    • Stan Carey says:

      The exercise itself is a diversion. I tried pluralising protagonists to connect it more obviously to singular they.

      I don’t think overwhelmed implies that the protagonist is ‘incapable of coherent action’. It just means they’re strongly affected and greatly preoccupied: not to the point of absolute incapacity. The word has a range of related meanings, so the question of hyperbole is an open one. Treat it as a hyperbolic use if that makes more sense to you, or as periods of incapacity alternating with periods of detective work. But inconvenienced strikes me as too mild a descriptor for the events being confronted.

      As I said in my reply to Tim, I may have overstated the potential for ambiguity. But the other reading did occur to me; I didn’t contrive it or go looking for it. So it seemed fair to assume it might occur to other readers as well, even if the uncertainty it caused was only brief (which in virtually all cases I think it’s likely to be). It’s not difficult to rewrite the text to remove the ambiguity and the phrases his/her and he/she. The challenge is to do so without substantially reworking the writer’s original rhythm and style.

  11. As I’m sure you’re aware, Stan, it’s an even bigger problem in Irish. Some people insist on transferring the English rule to Irish, so they use ‘siad’ when the gender is unclear. The problem with this is that using they and their is very old in English as a genderless pronoun but there’s no tradition of it in Irish. Those ‘má tá sé/sí ina c(h)ónaí’ expressions really look very messy.

    • Stan Carey says:

      The problem in Irish is something I’ve heard passing reference to. I agree that the foot-in-both-camps construction is a mess – even more so than in English, as you say, on account of the parenthetical séimhiú.

  12. astraya says:

    A test which I am about my students contains the sentence: ‘If a child falls into the water, he or she might drown.’

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