For centuries, the rule on neutral pronouns was simple: Use the male form to apply to everybody. For example:
Everyone in the room considered himself fortunate.
No one knows what he would do in this situation.
Each employee is responsible for his workspace.
Seemingly no one questioned the logic of this practice. (Certainly not the female teachers I learned it from in the early 1950s.) But a rule of grammar that slights half the population cannot last forever.
As consensus formed that females should no longer be bunched beneath the male umbrella, some writers with raised consciousnesses struggled over how to proceed. Novelist Tom Robbins, certainly no hidebound traditionalist, went so far as to apologize in a 1976 author’s note for using third person pronouns and collective nouns in the masculine gender. “Unfortunately,’’ he wrote, “there are at this time no alternatives that do not either create confusion or impede the flow of language; which is to say, there are no acceptable alternatives.”
But as writers press ahead all these decades later, what does the copy editor do? One priority is to recognize that sentences like this recent one are not an improvement:
Anyone born from 1945 to 1965 should get a one-time blood test to see if they have the liver-destroying virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in draft recommendations issued Friday.
Right, there is no “he” there, as there would have been in the old days. But there is also no grammatical agreement. “Anyone” is singular; “they” is plural. The two do not work together. (Singular/plural disagreements have become as much of a scourge as the automatic use of masculine pronouns used to be.)
The copy editor should change the second part of the construction, making it say “ ... to see if he or she has the liver-destroying virus....” That remedy always works, and it recognizes that there are two genders. If the change makes the final product feel too wordy, the copy editor instead can alter the beginning, making it simply say “People born from 1945 to 1965 ...” Either way, we avoid treating one person as many.
So in the end, the copy editor serves two missions. For this we thank her. Or him.
Charles F. Mansbach is Page One editor for The Boston Globe