In Part 1 of this post, I mentioned the old-fashioned method of referring to a non-specific person using the pronoun ‘he’ (as shown in sentence 1 below). In this post I want to consider options 2 and 3.
Both of these options are widely used in modern standard English in order to be inclusive, getting away from the innate sexism of option 1. Many authorities discourage the use of option 3 however (’s/he’), mainly because it is not a ‘real’ word and cannot be pronounced if the sentence is being read aloud.
Sentence 2 above is fine. But this usage (‘he or she’, or ‘he/she’) can become very clumsy when we want to refer repeatedly to a non-specific individual across several sentences. Consider the following example from a HK government website:
… We will also separately issue a final bill to the existing registered customer with a bill
message advising him/her that his/her consumership has been terminated and he/she may
contact us if he/she has any enquiries.
The final sentence of this is difficult to read because the repeated use of he/she and him/her is distracting, and not something we would ever say in spoken English. In the next example, the writer (from the IRD) has added an extra option (not just ‘he’ or ‘she’ but also ‘they’) to produce an unreadable monstrosity:
If the owner/all partners/the principal officer is/are not residing in Hong Kong, he/she
has/they have to appoint a resident individual as his/her/their agent for the purposes of
business registration. In that case, please complete and submit the formIRBR177or submit
an appointment letter stating the full particulars of the agent including his/her name, Hong
Kong identity card number and residential address. A copy of his/her Hong Kong identity
card must also be attached to the application.
In summary, while using ‘he or she’ or ‘he/she’ is perfectly acceptable in small doses, repeated usage across a text creates problems and distractions for readers. Here are some strategies for avoiding this:
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.