This is the first of a short series of posts on an important topic: when we want to talk about a non-specific person, what pronoun should we use to refer to that person? Here are some of the standard possibilities in English:
Although (1) was once the norm in English to refer generically to a person of either sex, this practice is widely discouraged in modern-day standard English. However, it can still be found in some Hong Kong publications and online documents. The following is from a booklet produced by the Family Health Service for grandparents, describing how to manage their grandchildren:
1. People now always talk about 'positive parenting' in bringing up children. What exactly is that?
Positive parenting means:
The writer presumably intends the pronoun ‘him’ to refer to both male and female grandchildren, but unfortunately almost all English readers of this passage will automatically assume that a male grandchild is being referred to. Despite the intentions of the writer, this passage comes across as a piece of ‘sexist’ writing, which excludes females from its focus.
The simple rule that follows from this is DO NOT USE THE PRONOUN ‘HE’ TO REFER TO A PERSON WHO MAY BE EITHER MALE OR FEMALE.
In the next post in this series we will look at options 2 and 3 above (‘he or she’ and ’s/he’) to see how useful they are, and what problems they bring with them.
About this blog
This blog arises from keeping an eye on English in Hong Kong. I often use signs, notices and advertisements that I see as starting points to write about English issues that commonly challenge Hong Kong writers.