Monday, August 22, 2011

Arbitrary Grammar Rules: Pronoun Agreement

The rule used to be that a gender-nonspecific singular noun needed a masculine singular pronoun for agreement. Example:
A reporter must understand his ethical responsibility.
The rule changed to subvert what some construed as a male-dominated mindset.  In 1975, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) published a position statement, Guidelines for Gender-Fair Use of Language, allowing for this new pronoun:
A reporter must understand his or her ethical responsibility.
So we solved the gender-exclusivity and created a new problem—awkwardness, as seen in the example below:
A reporter must understand his or her ethical responsibility, and if he or she has any doubt about the truth of a story he or she is covering, he or she should consult with his or her editor.
What solutions would the NCTE offer to such awkwardness? For one, make the original noun plural:

Reporters must understand their ethical responsibility, and if they have any doubt about the truth of a story they are covering, they should consult with their editor.
Another solution is to eliminate the disagreeable pronouns altogether:

A reporter must understand the ethical responsibility of the job, and if in doubt about the truth of a story, should consult with the editor.
Easy enough, but the issue continues when employees refer to their organizations:

XYZ, Inc. cares about its employees.
Corporate employees frown upon referring to their company as an it. They remedy the situation in several ways:

XYZ, Inc. cares about their employees. (This solution is grammatically incorrect, but many employees knowledgeable about the rule do not care, as they believe the problem is not theirs but the grammar snobs'.)
XYZ, Inc. management cares about the employees.
At XYZ, Inc., we care about our employees.
The moral? Just as we avoid strange people and places in certain situations, we might want to steer clear of this arbitrary grammar rule.