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The Phoenix and the Pronoun Problem

September 25, 2013

 I’ve been reading E Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet to my little boy as a bedtime story, and have just come across the following unusual attempt to solve the pronoun problem: ‘Next moment everyone was helping to pull down the heap of stones, and very soon everyone threw off its jacket…’ And again, on the next page: ‘…and then everyone took up its jacket…’

Now, we can see what Nesbit is trying to do. She is talking about a group that includes both boys and girls, but English doesn’t have a pronoun that refers to either boys or girls, in the singular (and everyone is a singular noun). Using it might seem to solve the problem. But it doesn’t really. It is indeed gender-neutral, but it is usually used to refer to things of no gender, not of either gender. So well done for trying, Edith, but it doesn’t sound right. What would be wrong with using their in this case? (‘Everyone took off their jacket’.) It breaks the grammatical rule of number, but it sounds right, and isn’t that what counts?

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  1. I suppose the use of “they” as a neutral singular postdates The Phoenix and the Carpet; I think to a modern speaker “everyone took off their jacket” would come as naturally as “she took off her jacket”.

  2. The funny thing is that the singular use of ‘they’ predates The Phoenix and the Carpet (1904) by a good long time. In Jane Austen’s Emma (1815), Mr Elton, a vicar and an educated man, says ‘Everybody has their level’. Yet despite this usage having been around so long it still isn’t accepted by grammatical sticklers. I recently had this use of ‘their’ corrected by my editor at the Independent on Sunday, who preferred ‘his or her’.

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