Is there a gender-neutral substitute for "his or her"?

As writer Deborah Cameron points out, the sentence “The man went berserk and killed his neighbor’s wife” is unobjectionable on its surface. But stop to think: why “his neighbor’s wife” instead of “one of his neighbors”?

Because his neighbor’s wife doesn’t live with that neighbor?


Simple, he only had one neighbour

Because if you say his neighbor’s wife, you know the person he killed was female, married and live close enough to be call a neighbor… If you just say one of his neighbors, you don’t know what gender the person was that was killed, nor do you know if they were wed or unwed.

If he had killed the man, would you expect the paper to say, “his neighbor’s husband,”?

I would, but I’m not most people. A far better way to have put his is He kill, Jane Smith of 1186 1st Street. Jane Smith lived next door to her killer and was married to Ted Smith.

You have all the information, and don’t have to worry about his or her.

Huh. I’d have expected “The woman went berserk and killed her neighbor’s husband.”

I guess I assume that the man is more likely to know the male neighbor better, and the woman is more likely to know the female neighbor better. But I see the point.

“Man went berserk and killed woman next door”

Didn’t we just have this conversation? Complete with the exact same arguments?
Powers &8^]

While it may SEEM as if grammar is ruled by tightlipped school marms with threatening rulers tapping against their palms or old men with monocles in ivy covered halls in reality usage is ruled by what ordinary people do in their speech and writing. It takes a while for the rule writers (not makers you see) to get around to formalizing this usage in books and declaring it correct. However, listening to people speak I have declared that “his/or her” will not be replaced by some new word although some have made suggestions. It will be replaced by what I call and urge YOU to call the “indefinite plural” definition: The indefinite plural indicates one and of an indefinite group that might be of either gender and therefore the gender specific pronouns “he” and “she” or “his” and “her” are inappropriate. Examples.

Someone picked up the money and then THEY left in a yellow car.

A person took my dog and I hope THEY decide to return it.

When someone loses an item it is kept in the lost and found for a month before THEIR property is donated to charity.

In all of these examples it is obvious the subject is singular just as the speaker/writer is a single person but THEY used the INDEFINITE PLURAL to replace “his or her” or “he or she”. I posit that YOU have heard this usage a million times and hopefully giving it a name, to wit, “the indefinite plural” will help formalize this rule. Tell you local school marm.

This is essentially what I would have said in response to the original question, but after reading the sentence it hit me that a more appropriate question would address the inference in the sentence that, in killing the neighbor’s wife, the offense was to the live spouse.

I always like to ask opponents of the singular they how to correctly fix the sentence, “Let me know if your mother or your father changes their mind.”

“Let me know if one of your parents changes his or her mind.”
Powers &8^]

and, in the example you used notice you used the indefinite plural and everybody knows you mean “his or her” from the context. On the other subject of killing his neighbor’s wife had the killer been a woman this author would have written, “The woman killed her neighbor’s husband.” The way the original sentence indicates their might have been something sexual or otherwise affecting the marital relationship between the couple that had one spouse killed. This isn’t some weird sexist political correctness problem. It just indicates some additional information that the author knows or suspects, but can’t state absolutely.
There’s a guy across the street from me that I speak to 3 or 4 times a month when I see him outside to comment on someone who moved into or out of the neighborhood or had the cops over etc. I have only spoken to his wife once in that way and it was because of a local emergency where people may have been at risk. My wife on the other hand speaks to the women a couple of times a month, but rarely the man. This is “normal”. If I started going over and joking around with the woman several times a month while she was going into the house my wife, her husband and likely SHE HERSELF would ask me exactly what I thought I was doing. This is also “normal”. If someone shoots me… The Dallas Morning News is very PC… the news headline would say “Man Shoots Neighborhood Lothario”. No pronouns involved.

Well, you’ve changed the sentence, which is fine, (although, I also wonder if you solve clogged sinks by taking out a wall) but I was thinking more in terms of people who insist that the masculine embraces the feminine.

Well such persons are hardly the only opponents of singular they.
Powers &8^]

In English, the male pronouns (he/his/him) are both masculine and neuter. If you are unsure of a person’s gender, it is grammatically correct to use he to refer to the person.

An Argument for Generic Singular “They”

I wrote this up quite casually, but I do have an M.A. in Ling from Univ. of CA. and did some work in this area of the field.

It is also “grammatically correct” to refer to a person of unknown gender as “it” or as “they”. For example (if you doubt that “it” can be used):

  • I heard the Smiths have a new baby: do you know what sex it is?
  • I was told that a person called to see me when I was out: was it a man or a woman?

So the pronouns that can be used to refer to “a baby” or to “a person” are “he”, “she” and “it” – neatly illustrating that English has no gender, since the nouns “baby” and “person” have no grammatical gender. In French, which does have grammatical gender, if you use “une personne” to refer to a person, you must use the feminine “elle” to refer to the person, regardless of whether the person is female, male or of unknown gender.

And it’s not correct to say that “the male pronouns (he/his/him) are both masculine and neuter.” They have no gender: what you can say is that the pronouns (he/his/him) can be used to refer to male people, male animals, and people of unknown gender – and you should also say that many people do not like using he/his/him for people of unknown gender, and prefer using they/their/them instead.

What if you don’t know whether their parents are MF. FF, or MM? Go with “their.” Language is natural, and it’s all headed there anyway.

Just because language is natural doesn’t mean I have to acquiesce to every cockamamie idea that comes along and gains some measure of traction. Heck, we never should have let “you” become singular; doing it for “they” would just be compounding the error.
Powers &8^]