3. Gender Inconsistencyby Weston Kincade on 11/17/13
Gender inconsistency can be problematic at times, especially when trying to remain gender neutral. Some audiences have come to accept an irregularity such as a singular subject combined with a plural pronoun, but this is incorrect and should be avoided. However, there are also some solutions that take political correctness to the extreme and will inevitably drive readers to not only put your book down, but in some cases burn it. This can be costly, especially if they were reading an e-book. For the dos and don’ts of gender inconsistencies and pronoun-antecedent agreement errors, read on.
Singular Indefinite Pronoun Inconsistency
A common example of singular-plural inconsistency caused by gender-neutral and all-inclusive subjects can be found in the case of singular indefinite pronouns.
Incorrect – Everyone grabbed their wallets and began pulling out money.
The subject everyone is a singular indefinite pronoun while their is a possessive pronoun referring back to the subject. These common pronoun-antecedent errors should be avoided, but the problem is that everyone is all inclusive of each individual, regardless of gender.
Singular Indefinite Pronoun Solution
There are a couple ways to correct this sentence:
1. Use a gender-neutral subject that is plural, such as people in the audience.
Correct – The people in the audience grabbed their wallets and began pulling out money.
2. Replace their with a gender-neutral singular pronoun or article, such as a.
Correct – Everyone grabbed a wallet and began pulling out money.
Remember to make sure the indirect object (what is being acted upon by the verb) is also singular in this case. Due to this, I also changed wallets to wallet.
3. A gender-specific subject can be used if everyone is of one particular gender. In that case, a couple more solutions present themselves.
Correct – The men grabbed their wallets and began pulling out money.
Correct – The women grabbed their wallets and began pulling out money.
Gender Inconsistency in Possessive Pronouns
A common problem regarding gender is often seen in gender-specific possessive pronouns like his and hers.
Incorrect – A staff member must visit his doctor for a physical before returning to work.
If all staff members are male, then this sentence is correct. However, most workplaces include staff members of both sexes, meaning this requires an editing correction or two.
Gender Inconsistency Solution
Since the subject staff member is singular, it requires a singular gender-neutral article such as a or the.
Correct – A staff member must visit the doctor for a physical before returning to work.
Correct – A staff member must visit a doctor for a physical before returning to work.
Alternative Solutions: (Avoid using these!)
For a bit of a laugh, I’ve also included a few alternative solutions. While some people use them, I’m warning against it. These are alternatives you may have found yourself using in the past, but don’t do so again. They create awkward sentences, vague descriptions, confusion, and can sometimes simply drive the reader to insanity if the writer is striving to be too politically correct.
1. The first alternative solution is to make the subject plural and use a plural gender-neutral possessive pronoun or article.
Correct – Staff members must visit their doctors for a physical before returning to work.
However, this can be problematic due to the confusion about how many doctors staff members must visit.
2. Here is where the second alternative solution comes in. To be politically correct, the sentences should include both genders, be consistent with a singular or plural subject, and be explicit about how many doctors.
Correct – A staff member must visit his or her doctor for a physical before returning to work.
As you can imagine, this can become awkward and in the case of manuscripts should be avoided in the interest of a reader’s sanity. Using his or her and he or she too often while trying to remain politically and grammatically correct will lead your readers to believe they are reading an instruction manual and put the book down. They will remember your name, but most likely as an author they never want to read again. Just don’t do it! The other solutions mentioned above are far better.
For more explanations of common pronoun-antecedent agreement errors, try the following articles.
Common Pronoun-Antecedent Agreement Errors
1. Singular-Plural Inconsistency
2. Singular Indefinite Pronoun Inconsistency
3. Gender Inconsistency
4. Missing Antecedents
5. Ambiguous Antecedents
6. Pronoun-Antecedent Order