The Case of the Missing Pronoun

towels_theirsEnglish is full of delicious contradictions. It has more words than any other language, mostly because the rules are very lax about whether words from all other languages are counted as English words. (Are honcho and tsunami English words, or merely borrowed from Japan?) Yet, with all this embarrassment of verbal riches, English is conspicuously lacking one of the basic building blocks of language construction.

Which of these is grammatically correct?

1.  Someone forgot his octopus in the band practice room.

2.  A senator sent their condolences to the family of the survivors.

3.  My sibling can’t decide whether to wear his or her shoes.

The officially correct answer is 3. (Notwithstanding the suggestion that my brother can’t decide between brogues or stilettos.)

When I was a kid, I was taught that 1 was the correct construction. The subject Someone is singular (some – one, right?), so the possessive pronoun connected to it has to agree in number. We can’t use their (from Number 2) because it is plural. Our only choices for singular possessive pronoun are his, her or its. The problem is Someone is also of unspecified gender, so we don’t know which one to use. Its might seem like a good compromise, but the pronoun it is only used for an inanimate object, or maybe an animal like a snake or politician, and it is considered impolite and insulting to refer to any person as it. That seems dumb to me, basing a language rule on social etiquette alone.

By the same token, we can’t use her, because we can’t be sure Someone is female, and it is considered insulting to refer to a male with female terms. Back in the 20th Century, I was instructed to use his in these situations. He, him and his were understood to include the possibility of the unknown subject being female.

That sounded silly to me back then, and today, in the time of recognizing the equality of female humans, it has been pronounced officially silly, and also grammatically incorrect. The proper correct answer is Number 3. Yuck — his or her. We all know it is correct and we all hate to use it. The category for this type of language is AWKWARD.

So there it is — the missing pronoun. English needs a singular pronoun that has a non-specific gender, a word that could possibly mean a male or female person, but only one. Maybe there was one back in the Middle English days, but it has gotten lost in the couch cushions of time.

This pronoun gap is not exactly a big secret. Over the last few decades, lots of smart people have proposed new words to fill it. Here are a few of them:

hin          shis          shim

thon        co             xie

per          en             ne

nis           nir             hiser

Seriously? What language did they think they were coining for? I don’t even know how to pronounce the one starting with ‘x’. Where they just trying to boost their Scrabble scores?

What I don’t get is why the problem seems to be so difficult. The missing pronoun isn’t missing at all. It has been hiding in plain sight all this time. It’s just that the Grammar Police are too stuck on their rules to recognize it.

The solution to the missing pronoun is to use what everybody already uses: they, their, them.

Yes, They and their are plural. But is this the only rule in the English language that doesn’t have an exception? I think there is already an unwritten exception that is perfectly natural to everybody that uses English already. I call it the Exception of Intentional Vagueness.

When you start a sentence with “someone”, you are trying to be vague on purpose. You want to hide the person’s identitiy, by masking the name, the gender, and (this is very important) the exact number of people involved in this sentence.

When you say “someone” you don’t even want the listener to assume it/they was/were only one person, just a number of people greater than zero. Maybe it was one. Maybe two. Maybe a million. It’s your little secret.

In that case the use of his or her is not correct, because it is more specific you intend. His or her implies the exact number of people (one and only one), and that is spilling too many beans. This is what I mean by the Exception of Intentional Vagueness. The following sentence is a good example of its application:

Someone splattered their Velveeta nachos all over the kitchen during the night, and whichever kid or kids they are, they better clean it up before I figure out how many belts I’m going to have to get out of my closet.

Pronoun found. Case closed.