Agreement of personal pronouns with antecedents

 

Q:

How can I avoid the awkwardness of he/she, him/her, his/her in writing, or speaking, when the subject is singular, such as: each student ?a person ?every man, woman, and child ?a driver ?everybody. The English language does not currently have pronouns or possessive adjectives to handle this agreement problem. I have had writing from my students like this:

A person who lives in my condominium has to pay his/her maintenance fee on time. She/he also has to follow certain rules so that she/he will not bother other residents. For example, she/he cannot hang clothes over the balcony railing, and has to be careful so that his/her neighbors don't get angry at him/her for playing music too loud.?

Anonymous
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A:

The best way to avoid the awkwardness of he/she, him/her, etc., is to change the person to plural whenever possible. All-encompassing, general statements can usually be made just as well about people in general as about one male or female. This allows the pronouns to be they, their, them, or themselves. Using this ploy, which is what professional writers and speech-makers are doing, your students will produce much more readable paragraphs than the one you quoted.

The paragraph above would now be:

People (or The residents, for example) who live in my condominium have to pay their maintenance fee on time. They also have to follow certain rules so that they will not bother other residents. For example, they cannot hang clothes over the balcony railing, and have to be careful so that their neighbors don't get angry at them for playing music too loud.

Barbara Matthies

A:

Barbara's solution is the easiest. There are, however, other options, such as:

1)

The consistent use of you as the person. In an informal style, the passage in Barbara's entry might read:

 

If you live in a condominium, you have to pay your maintenance fee on time. You also have to follow certain rules so that you will not bother other residents. For example, you cannot hang clothes over the balcony railing, and you have to be careful so that your neighbors don't get angry at you for playing music too loud.

2)

The use of the passive voice. The formality and anonymity of the passive voice lends itself well to the use of "one," as in this slightly reworked passage:

 

Living in a condominium, one has to observe many regulations: the maintenance fees have to be paid on time, and certain rules have to be followed so that other residents are not bothered. For example, clothes cannot be hung over balcony railings, and music must not be played too loud.

 

The same passage could appear with you instead of one in a less formal way:

 

Living in a condominium, you have to observe many regulations: the maintenance fees have to be paid on time, and certain rules have to be followed so that other residents are not bothered. For example, clothes cannot be hung over balcony railings, and music must not be played too loud.

So, there are several ways to construct a passage to avoid the awkwardness of s/he, him/her, etc. The important point is to be consistent in the use of person throughout the passage.

RSK

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