Buck's English: Gender neutrality by the numbers

Buck's English: Gender neutrality by the numbers
BY GENE OWENS For The Oklahoman Published: May 1, 2012
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“There are hundreds of tribes in Afghanistan, and everyone has their own mission,” declared a member of Congress from North Carolina.

Back when college English courses paid proper respect to grammar, educated readers would have pounced on that sentence from the New York Times.

“Everyone” is singular; “their” is plural.

So “everyone” can't have “their own mission.”

In the old days, the congressman could have said, “everyone has his own mission.” The masculine pronoun was understood to be proper when referring to mixed groups. A generation of feminist activism has played havoc with that rule. Modern women don't like to be referred to by masculine pronouns. Buck won't argue.

But that does present problems for writers who want to maintain agreement between pronouns and antecedents. Buck tries to find ways to make the antecedent plural, because plural pronouns are gender-neutral.

Buck's first question: Does the pronoun “everyone” refer to “tribes” or to individual persons? Normally, it refers to persons. If the congressman had meant “every tribe,” he should have said “every one has its own mission.” If he meant “every person,” and didn't want to offend women voters, he should have rephrased: “There are hundreds of tribes in Afghanistan, and each person has an individual mission.”

Send questions for Buck to Gene Owens, 104 Belspring Lane, Anderson, SC 29621, or e-mail him at BucksEnglish@aol.com. Please let Buck know what town you're from.