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I'm translating a short story from Korean into English. One problem I frequently face is the 'antecedent pronoun agreement' when the original text leaves the 'gender' of the subject unspecified (and this is very common in Korean). I have racked my brains over this many times but can't come up with an 'elegant' workaround.

The following are a few examples where I face this problem.

She had the illusion that she would fall in love if someone were to stick their head out from among one of those countless cubicles and meet her eye, even if that person happened to be an octopus.

And,

One person has put up a certificate won in their childhood that played a crucial role in deciding their career path. Someone else has hung a tacky Emille Bell that looks like it has been bought on a field trip to Gyeongju. The most common decorations, however, are mass-manufactured posters. Depending what they put up, the person reveals not only their taste but their identity as well. It is quite easy to get a handle on the person’s mind if they have put up Dilbert, the cartoon strip character popular for dealing with the everyday life of the ‘cubicle man.’

In the next passage I intentionally specified the gender as a 'he' because I thought it would be odd for the 'speaker' to refer to a person working in the same office (even if she doesn't know him or her) as 'he or she'. But I wonder if there is any possibility of avoiding the gender here as well.

Someone has hung up a t-shirt he seems to have worn to university sports meets. The red mud stains that have survived washing suggest he has spent quite some time running around the sports ground. It is not clear if it is the name of his alma mater emblazoned on the chest or the fervor of the days spent running in the sports ground he wants to emphasize.

I would really appreciate any tips on working around this annoying problem.

Note: I have searched the web for a solution but found nothing of practical use.

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I think this question is a much better fit for ell.SE or english.SE (and I'm fairly sure it's been already answered in the latter.) –  SF. Apr 5 '13 at 7:18
    
We've also gotten two flags suggesting this question should be migrated. While I think the question is fine here - a question can be on-topic on more than one site - if you think the question should be moved, you can use your close votes and specify English or ELL as a migration site. –  Neil Fein Apr 5 '13 at 11:06
    
This is a good question, but I think English/ELU might be a better fit. My VTC is only a vote to migrate, not a comment on the quality of the question. I've upvoted it. –  Lauren Ipsum Apr 5 '13 at 11:32
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I can see why this has been nominated for ELL, but I think there's a subtle difference: ELL will tell you words you can use, but Writers will tell you how to write around the problem. I think the latter is on-topic here, but (e.g.) a question about the correctness of singular "they" would not be. –  Monica Cellio Apr 5 '13 at 16:45
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I think that this is a classic problem that writers face, and even though it's impossible to answer definitively, it's quite possible to lay out the varied solutions, as John and Jay have done. –  Neil Fein Apr 5 '13 at 18:52
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4 Answers 4

up vote 2 down vote accepted

On the matter of gender-neutral pronouns:

Pronouns like "they" and "them" can generally be used in some not strictly plural contexts, with varying degrees of informality. I get the impression that English may not be your native language (writing that's technically excellent, uncertainty about things native speakers learn intuitively, occasional non-use of a common idiom where it would be expected), so I'll attempt to clarify the situation a bit.

With the caveat that these are rough guidelines, here are some contexts where plural pronouns are commonly used and will sound natural to most people:

  • Referring to a possible group of one or more people. Even in formal writing, "he or she or they" is ridiculous and so is anyone who would insist on it over just "they".
  • An unspecified singular member of a group. Your first quote is a perfect example of this.
  • Implicitly referring to an entire group but speaking in terms of an individual, e.g. "Each person present did what they had to under the circumstances."
  • A single generic person in an abstract sense, comparable to the stuffy-sounding "one" or use of "you" to refer to nobody in particular.

Here are some contexts that may sound a bit more awkward:

  • A single, specific person of unknown gender identified by their circumstances or a generic role, e.g. "When the janitor came through last night, they 'tidied up' my papers and now I can't find anything!". In this case, avoiding pronouns as much as possible can help.
  • Any of the contexts in the previous list, except that the gender is known for other reasons. This can sometimes sound okay at first but will distract the reader if they notice the unnecessary generality, e.g. "each father should do what is best for their child". Obviously in this case you should just use the gender-specific forms.

There's only one common situation I can think of where using a plural pronoun is usually not appropriate and will sound awkward or wrong to most readers:

  • When referring to a single, specific person identified as an individual or by a role unique in broad context whose gender is unknown to the speaker. My name is "Casey", which is used almost equally for males and females; "he or she" would be most appropriate for someone here referring to me in third person. Similarly, if I'm talking about the current occupant of a unique role like "Beloved-Dictator-for-Life of the Republic of Lower Elbonia", using "he or she" is appropriate.

As a rule of thumb, using a plural pronoun in singular context is appropriate in proportion to how ambiguous or irrelevant the personal identity of the person being referred to is.


Unfortunately, it sounds like most of what you're facing falls under that last scenario. In a work of fiction, it would sound very unnatural for a character to avoid gender-specific pronouns when talking about a specific person they know. If the original version doesn't specify a gender, your best option for translation is to simply pick one. Flip a coin or something if you have to.

In the second quote:

One person has put up a certificate won in their childhood that played a crucial role in deciding their career path. Someone else has hung a tacky Emille Bell that looks like it has been bought on a field trip to Gyeongju.

If the narrator would know these people by name, gender-specific pronouns are probably obligatory here. Ditto for the third quote. Picking an arbitrary gender for each individual is probably better than awkwardly avoiding the matter. I suggest taking notes to make sure you're consistent with this, so that the person with the certificate doesn't change gender between scenes.

If the narrator doesn't know these people and isn't certain of their genders, this falls under the first item of my second list, in which case what you have is fine, but rewording to avoid pronouns where possible would help.

The most common decorations, however, are mass-manufactured posters. Depending what they put up, the person reveals not only their taste but their identity as well. It is quite easy to get a handle on the person’s mind if they have put up Dilbert, the cartoon strip character popular for dealing with the everyday life of the ‘cubicle man.’

On the other hand, this is all talking of abstract people, unspecified individuals, or groups in terms of each member; in these cases, the plural form is preferable, and acceptable even if the narrator might (for example) know that all four people with Dilbert posters happen to be male.

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Thank you for the detailed answer. And for the nice workarounds you have suggested. Cheers! –  Soulz Apr 6 '13 at 12:30
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Well, if you think you can resolve this annoying problem, more power to you. This has been one of the most debated bugaboos for writers in English since time immemorial.

Classically, the antiquated answer was to use male pronouns generically. This was never wholly satisfactory, and as the world has become more sensitive to diversity, it has become almost painfully inappropriate. "One" was introduced some time ago as the alternative. "He or she" also has some popularity, but it's awkward. All sorts of invented/constructed options have been tried, such as he/she, she/he, s/he, se, and others. None of them has survived in any significant way.

Another recent answer has been to use "he" and "she" at almost random times in any given text. When done thoughtfully, this can be somewhat effective. If you try it, you probably want to be sensitive to the context; if the text carries any distinct flavor of one or the other, go with that one. Be careful you aren't linking something in a biased way; the context should be unequivocally connected to one or the other, if you are going to use that as a deciding factor. If there is nothing that distinctively links to one or the other, then flip a coin.

Ultimately, there is no simple answer, no right answer, no universally accepted way of dealing with this problem. I find myself doing almost anything I can to reconstruct what I'm writing to avoid having to deal with it at all, whenever possible.

Lastly, the use of "their" and "them" in place of "he or she" and "him or her" has become quite common, and is gaining greater acceptance, so you might just want to accept this usage and be done with it. Even many authorities will no longer consider this to be wrong.

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Haha I was not trying to resolve the issue, just asking for suggestions to work around it. Especially in the instances I mentioned. Please do throw around any ideas you might have. :) Is the usage of 'plural pronouns' like 'they, their etc' accepted as good writing in English fiction? –  Soulz Apr 5 '13 at 7:51
    
@Soulz It depends on whom you ask. I find it abhorrent; many people are fine with it. –  Lauren Ipsum Apr 5 '13 at 10:07
    
The antiquated answer is to use whatever pronoun you want as the generic. "They" as a singular pronoun has been around far longer than the idea (which has no real basis in English language tradition) that only the masculine generic is correct, despite what self-appointed "authorities" like to pretend. –  C. A. McCann Apr 5 '13 at 18:37
    
@LaurenIpsum: That should be "thou", not "you". "You" is the second-person plural pronoun, which like "they" has been misused as a singular pronoun for centuries. If you're going to reject modern English, might as well be consistent. –  C. A. McCann Apr 5 '13 at 18:43
    
@C.A.McCann ...I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. I didn't bring up "thou." –  Lauren Ipsum Apr 5 '13 at 18:46
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Just don't settle for one way of writing something. Example:

One person Someone has put up a certificate, won in their during childhood, that played a crucial role in deciding their a career path. Someone else has hung a tacky Emille Bell that looks like it has been bought on a field trip to Gyeongju. The most common decorations, however, are mass-manufactured posters. Depending what they people put up, the person reveals they reveal not only their taste tastes but their identities identities as well. It is quite easy to get a handle on the person’s mind if they have the mind of someone who has put up Dilbert, the cartoon strip character popular for dealing with the everyday life of the ‘cubicle man.’

You could argue that taste and identity could remain singular here. You could also argue for using plural pronouns to agree with singular subjects, but that's beside the point. There are so many different ways to say a thing, and it is the writer's job to put the words into a felicitous arrangement. If one phrasing causes you problems, use another one.

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My mind was so stuck in the text, I could never think of this workaround by myself. Thanks a ton!!! –  Soulz Apr 6 '13 at 12:30
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As JohnLandsberg says, this is a problem that has been much discussed among English-speakers for many years.

If you are referring to a specific person, that person is presumably either male and female and this should not be a problem.

Likewise if in context the person must be male or must be female, there should be no problem. In your first example, I would think that when this woman talks about falling in love with the first person to pop a head up, she is likely thinking the first man to pop his head up. Unless she is a lesbian, in which case it would be the first woman. The only way this example would be a problem is if the woman really means that she could fall in love with either a man or with another woman.

But assuming neither of those cases apply:

(1) The old rule was, When the person referred to could be either male or female, use "he". So you would say, for example, "Ask the applicant if he will please fill out the form", etc., even if "the applicant" could be either a man or a woman. But some number of people find this insulting to women. In some cases it might create a real ambiguity whether the intended meaning is that the person must be male, or if it could be either male or female.

Alternatives that have been suggested include:

(2) Make up a new word that can refer to either gender. Nice idea, but inventing a new word and getting large numbers of people to use it is hard. You can pull it off if, for example, you've just invented some new gadget and have to give it a name, because there was no word for it before and people have to call it something. But we already have personal pronouns, and what's more, you often find yourself using pronouns several times in a sentence, likely hundreds or thousands of times in an article or a book. That many occurrences of a made-up new word is very distracting. So this idea has largely gone nowhere.

(3) Use "he/she", "him/her", etc. This works, but it is very awkward to read and gets tiring after a few uses.

I use this when I want to make clear that the person referred to could be of either sex. Otherwise I, and, I think, most writers, generally avoid it.

(4) Recast the sentence to use plurals. In English "they", "their", and "them" have no gender and so avoid the "sexism" problem. Instead of saying, for example, "Give a customer his receipt", say, "Give the customers their receipts". The problem with this is that sometimes we are talking about only one person. Like, "The winner of the contest is the contestant who earns the most points. He can earn points by ..." We cannot just change this to, "The winners of the contest are the contestants who earn the most points. They can earn points by ..." The first sentence says that there is one winner. The second sentence says that there are many winners. I've seen some discussions of cases where this is not obviously wrong but introduces a subtle change in meaning. One writer gave an example of "The citizen must work to defend his nation's principles ..." being rewritten as "Citizens must work to defend their nation's principles ..." He argued that this was similar, but not the same: The first indicated an individual responsibility and individual action, while the second implied group responsibility and collective action.

Personally, I often do this when it does not hurt the meaning to use plurals.

(5) Use plural pronouns but singular nouns. So some people will write things like, "When the customer requests a receipt, give them their receipt." That is, we say "the customer", singular, and "receipt", singular, but use "them" and "their" for the customer. Others object that this violates a very basic rule of English grammar that a pronoun must agree with its antecedent, i.e. you shouldn't refer to a single individual as "they". Aside from the arguably pedantic issue of obeying a rule because it's a rule, in some cases this could be confusing or ambiguous. Like #4, it might lead the reader to believe that many people are doing something when only one person is doing it.

(6) Mix use of masculine and feminine. This is becoming increasingly popular today. Someone writing an article in which he gives four examples of hypothetical people doing whatever will use masculine pronouns for two of the examples and feminine pronouns for the other two. I've seen some cases where a writer will mix pronouns referring to what would seem to be the same person. Like he'll say, "When the customer enters the store, greet him at the door. Ask her what she is looking for." I find this very distracting. But to make the first customer a "he" and the second a "she" makes sense.

(7) Use the opposite pronoun from what one would expect. Like say "The auto mechanic ... she ..." and "The nurse ... he ...". Personally I find this annoying and silly. In real life, the vast majority of auto mechanics are male. If you think that more women should enter this field, well, go ahead and work to make that happen, but just pretending that there are lots of female auto mechanics when there aren't ... I don't see the point.

(8) Avoid using pronouns: use a noun instead. Like instead of saying, "When the customer enters the store, greet that person. Ask what the customer wants." The catch to this is that you either, (a) End up using the same noun over and over. "Give the customer the customer's receipt, then tell the customer that the customer's warranty will apply to the product that the customer bought ...". This sounds very wordy and awkward. Or (b) you use different nouns to refer to the same person. "Give the customer the person's receipt, then tell the purchaser that the buyer's warranty will apply to the product that the visitor bought ..." This can leave the reader confused whether you're talking about the same person or different people. In my humble opinion, it is almost impossible to replace all pronouns with nouns without making the text hopelessly awkward, and unless you do it 100% of the time, you haven't solved the problem.

Personally, I often use plurals in informal speech and writing when it doesn't create an ambiguity. In more formal context, I use the old default-masculine rule unless it would create confusion.

Sorry for the long answer.

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Generic "he" is the historically recent rule. "They" as generic singular predates it. And, as I pointed out in another comment, "you" is also a plural pronoun misused as a singular (polite vs. the familiar "thou", i.e. the T-V distinction still found in many languages). This persistent myth that singular "they" is wrong baffles me. –  C. A. McCann Apr 5 '13 at 18:49
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@C.A.McCann - I was unaware that singular "they" was such an old construct. (Or are you referring to "thou" and I'm missing the point?) Not doubting you, but I'd love to learn more on this; do you have a source with more details? –  Neil Fein Apr 5 '13 at 18:55
    
@C.A.McCann Yes, please, I'd love to see your sources on "antique singular they." –  Lauren Ipsum Apr 5 '13 at 19:07
    
@NeilFein: No detailed sources at hand right now. The Wikipedia article has a few examples, including a use of the much-maligned construction "theymselfe" in 1489. This is really a question for linguists, who after all make their living pondering rules of language use. The english.SE might be able to help. I can dig up better sources later tonight, if you like. –  C. A. McCann Apr 5 '13 at 19:12
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@LaurenIpsum: The main thing you should realize, though, is that this is not in any way controversial. The idea of "he" being the sole traditional generic singular third-person pronoun is common only among those who've studied neither linguistics nor the history of the English language, and is the result of a deliberate attempt to impose that rule somewhere around the 1800s. –  C. A. McCann Apr 5 '13 at 19:26
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