on using “their” vs “his or hers”

The question of whether or not to use “their” to replace the awkward “his or hers” has been the eye of a grammarian hurricane for some time now. I’ve found that this usage has been generally accepted, particularly in the latter half of the 1990s in the wake of efforts to reduce the level of sexism built in to traditional grammar constructions.

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996) has this to say about the history of the controversy around the word their:

Fowler (1926) was among those who objected to the use of their in contexts that call ‘logically’ for his (though this use of the masculine gender to cover both has lately been called into question) or his or her. The issue is unresolved, but it begins to look as if the use of an indefinite third person singular is now passing unnoticed by standard speakers (except those trained in traditional grammar) and is being left unaltered by copy editors.

Notably, this controversy does not apply to the word them:

As the OED says, it is ‘often used for “him or her”, referring to a singular person whose sex is not stated, or to anybody, nobody, somebody, whoever, etc.’. Example: Nobody else…has so little to plague them.—C. Yonge, 1853 (ibid.)

Some traditionalists, like Strunk & White, do not appreciate this change and strongly advocate the wholesale rewriting of passages which would historically have utilized “his” as a catch-all pronoun meant to signify all genders. In the Fourth Edition of “Elements of Style” (2000) S&W defend this tradition: “The use of he as a pronoun for embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language.” However, even they state:

“Substituting he or she in its place is the logical thing to do if it works. But it often doesn’t work, if only because repetition makes it sound boring or silly.”

What’s interesting to me is that the most traditional usage of “they” was as a singular pronoun in the first place:

“He” started to be used as a generic pronoun by grammarians who were trying to change a long-established tradition of using they as a singular pronoun. In 1850 an Act of Parliament gave official sanction to the recently invented concept of the “generic” he. In the language used in acts of Parliament, the new law said, “words importing the masculine gender shall be deemed and taken to include females.” – Excerpted from article by Carolyn Jacobson, English Department, University of Pennsylvania

The Mirriam-Webster Pocket Guide to English Usage takes a completely different stance from Strunk & White, understanding the difficulties of making English more gender-inclusive:

They, their, them. English lacks a common-gender third-person singular pronoun that can be used to refer to indefinite pronouns such as everyone, anyone, or someone. Writer and speaker have for centuries supplied this lack by using the plural pronouns <everyone should try it once in their life><anyone who know their grammar knows this>. This use is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts. You have the option of using the plural or singular pronouns according to which one you think sounds best in a given context <someone on my left kept bumping me with his or her [their] elbow>.

The Oxford English Dictionary (which is, to be fair, not recently updated – last edition 1993), acknowledges the controversial usage of their in this manner. The OED states:

their 2. In relation to a singular n. or pron. of undetermined gender: his or her (Considered erron. by some.)

Because I tend to turn to Oxford as the final authority (yes, I know my Ivy League roots are showing), and because we’re in the U.S., you should know the 1999 edition of the Oxford American Dictionary provides this definition for their:

their 2. disp. As a third person singular indefinite meaning ‘his or her’ (has anyone lost their purse?)

Finally, while some “grammar purists” take issue with this reworking of “their” as a feminist attack on the English language, this usage is really nothing new. As proof, here are examples from two rather well known authors who appear to have no argument with this construction:

“I shouldn’t like to punish anyone, even if they’d done me wrong”
–George Eliot

“It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses”
–George Bernard Shaw

Originally published in 2000, in a zine that was printed on paper.

Adoptive Couple vs Baby Girl

Wow. I just heard the incredible Radiolab episode, “Adoptive Couple vs Baby Girl.” This is about a very complex case (originally written up in Slate) triggered by what at first glance seems to be just a custody case. But then why go to the US Supreme Court? Because it’s about the legal adoption by a white couple of a child whose biological father is a member of the Cherokee tribe, and the adoption was argued to be subject to (and voided by) the Indian Child Welfare Act. The history of ICWA and the story behind this case is gripping. And then I read that while the rest of us were hanging on this week’s SCOTUS rulings on the Voting Rights Act, DOMA, and same sex marriage, there was also a ruling in favor of the adoptive parents in the case now commonly referred to as “the baby Veronica case.” This one case has the potential to put the future of all the Native American tribes on shakier ground than it’s been in a long time through the possibility of (re-)defining who “qualifies” to be included in Indian law.

Weird that today I also read this article about how “black babies cost less” to adopt than white babies.

I have several friends who have adopted kids, some domestically and some from abroad, some within and some outside of their adoptive family’s visible ethnicity(-ies). Through their stories, I have learned that adoption is a complex world fraught with emotion and operating by its own rules. There will never be an absolute right or absolute wrong path. And some part of me feels that arguments over who “gets” to adopt a child are okay compared to the reality that so many children around the world grow up without families, without individual attention or even possibly love.

Still. All this tugs at me and nothing is easy or clear. It’s a Gordian knot, one that King Solomon’s sword is unwilling to cut.

A Spoon Can Change How You Think

This is the kind of study that I adore: Researchers at the University of Oxford decided to test if the choice of a spoon affected the flavor and other qualities of food. Turns out it does!

Image credit: Elizabeth Willing

Spoons made of metal or plastic changed perception of yogurt’s quality and density – and not in the way I’d expect. Black spoons and white spoons had different effects. You have to read the article over on the Smithsonian blog. It’s wonderful.

Lagrangian Drifters

Today’s research led me to learning about various ways to study ocean currents, using either the Lagrangian or Eulerian method of measurement. You can set something in the water and let it drift with the current (getting “Lagrangian measurements”) or you can set up something stationary and study the water that moves past it (getting “Eulerian measurements”). Kind of obvious once you think about it – both are necessary to really understand flow dynamics.

I may be doing something with Lagrangian drifters in the future so this is fascinating to me.

Having Compassion for the Wealthy

I’m currently reading The Soul of Money by Lynne Twist. In it, I was struck by this:

My fund-raising work with the very wealthy taught me that, surprisingly, wealth is no protection from human suffering. …People with excess wealth – not all of them, but many – struggle in lives disconnected from the qualities of the soul. They live trapped in a prison of privilege in which material comforts are plentiful, but spiritual and emotional deprivation are real and painful. …For some, wealth only serves as a weapon that expands their capacity to do harm.

I felt challenged, noticing that there’s been a hard stop to where I extend compassion. I’m mulling this over and feel that I need to work on this, particularly in the context of some things that are currently happening with people in my life.

Glimpsing the Future

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center lasers point toward the moon

This past week I had the privilege of working on the Innovation Partnership Program, an event co-created by XPRIZE and Singularity University. The speakers were absolutely amazing. For four days I listened to an incredible array of men and one woman who are taking an active part in creating the world around us now and into the future. Their insights blew me away.

I can’t share all of what was said because it was a private event for executives of Fortune 200 companies, but since many of the speakers have talks available online I’ll give you those references so you can experience some of their brilliance directly.

Exponential / Disruptive / Moonshot Thinking

The event’s leaders, Peter Diamandis & Salim Ismail, are on a mission to get business leaders to stop thinking linearly and start thinking exponentially, particularly to keep up with the speed of change in technology. They admonish leaders to stop trying to improve and learn to disrupt instead, encouraging them to think in terms of moonshots.

Hard to summarize this, but just know that spending 4 days listening to people who consider exponential thinking as necessary — it’s really their normal — has had its effect on me already. And this was despite the fact that I was only able to hear bits of their talks as I was working, collecting their presentations, and setting furniture and water glasses onstage…

Medical / Health

I spent years working in the HIV field, so it’s no wonder I was drawn to the medical technologies. Dan Barry and Daniel Kraft shared some mind-bending advances using robotics, AI, and sensors.

click on this picture & watch the second video. Amazing!

On the technology front, I’m particularly excited about robotics that can assist the disabled (Barry discussed current examples of exoskeletons for paraplegics and robotic limbs which are controlled by thought through a Brain Computer Interface (BCI), and about nanotechnology that can isolate and target individual cells – Kraft talks about targeting the cells that cause cancer to return (at 15:17). (I wonder about the possibilities of targeting as-yet-elusive viruses, too. Such as HIV. Of course.)

P4 medicine

On a larger scale, I’m fascinated by “P4 Medicine” that Kraft mentioned. P4 Medicine is a term coined by Leroy Hood for a future in which systems thinking + advances in technology = healthcare that is Predictive, Preventive, Personal, and Participatory. Some of this is already happening, but it’s only going to get better in the future. Being able to personalize treatments – and to target them with increasing precision – makes possible a future of increasingly effective treatments, free from random side-effects.

Several speakers discussed big data, and in the field of health I remembered reading about people casting interesting epidemiological nets into the sea of social media, for instance tracking the course of a flu based on reading Facebook statuses about getting sick. As our ability to do natural language processing improves this one approach becomes more feasible. Far beyond that, as more people wear sensors to track health (like the fitbit), we’ll have ever-greater amounts of data and who knows what we’ll learn? (Personal note: I’ve been inspired to get & start wearing the fitbit myself)

Avi Reichental gave a fascinating talk on 3D printing, including how it’s being used for medical purposes (e.g., “bioprinting“). It’s like living science fiction to be able to print a new ear (already happened) or heart (still in the lab stage) using cells as the source material. The idea that in the future we could possibly print using molecular-sized building blocks led to some interesting speculation about being able to send the codes for medicines to remote locations and have them print drugs locally (and I got excited thinking about this as one way to get around cold-chain issues).

Throughout the event the questions of access and developing nations was raised. Some developments certainly help get better care more inexpensively to remote areas (e.g., smartphone based ultrasound) but others threaten to widen the gap between those who do and don’t have access to the latest technologies. Astro Teller also voiced an overall warning about how our (U.S.) system of healthcare significantly relies on people being sick to stay in business, and that we need to rethink/discover ways to make money based on keeping people well instead.

Of course there’s a dangerous side to this as well, one discussed by Marc Goodman, a defense specialist. His article in The Atlantic entitled “Hacking the President’s DNA”, co-authored with Andrew Hessel and Steven Kotler, is disturbing at the same time it’s informative. (Beyond the health arena, Goodman reiterated several of the warnings that he laid out in his TED talk.)

Autonomous Robots, Self-Driving Cars

Brad Templeton talked about the robotic car and its potential impact on the future. One really cool thought was that a robocar doesn’t need to park – it can independently move on to another task once someone has been dropped off, opening up the possibility of eliminating the need for parking and freeing up a lot of additional land in cities for things like parks, bike lanes, and walking areas.

I’m also into anything that can lead to the end of factory farming, and the idea of deliverybots which could do continuous small, frequent deliveries may be part of making that happen. Fingers crossed! Side note: The entire field of agriculture seems ripe for technology disruptions in the near future.

Crowdsourcing / Networked Everything / Urbanization

Much of the event discussed and/or included the possibilities of crowdsourcing. We’re certainly familiar with this in terms of crowdsourcing solutions to big ideas (XPRIZE) and funding (Kickstarter), but I hadn’t paid attention to companies who managed to practically and effectively implement crowdsourcing in the field of complex design. Local Motors crowdsourced car and motorcycle design, and Quirky uses the crowd to find and develop all kinds of inventions. Both companies give evidence that there are undoubtably more business models ripe for innovation.

For the first time in history, the majority of people across the globe live in urban areas. Add this to the fact that we can communicate globally easily and instantaneously, and it feels like we are just at the beginning of a new way of seeing the world, one that is less geographically dependent and more focused on the larger collective (or at least I hope so!). Does it also portend a future of city-states, as suggested by Paul Saffo?

Saffo provided my favorite takeaway quote/warning: “Never mistake a clear view for a short distance.” He cautioned that all this was not going to be easy. Or quick.


While the word “innovation” was core to every presentation, Larry Keeley focused on Ten Types of Innovation in the context of business. He lambasted equating developing a new product as “innovation,” giving a hilarious recreation of the “brainstorming” scene where a top exec demands “We need to innovate!” and others scramble.

Steve Jurvetson talked about disruptive innovations through a wide range of fields, noting that technology is expanding the arenas which are catching the attention of VCs. (Note: The linked talk is over 3 years old – forever in Silicon Valley – but still so relevant).

Getting Practical

9803159_origThe week wasn’t only the one-way absorption of big thoughts. The execs also did some hands-on work that revealed a bit about their thinking processes and pushed them to go bigger. Tom Wujec led them through the Marshmallow Challenge, discussed how to solve a wicked problem, and brilliantly captured the sessions with visual notetaking throughout the event, inviting creative/different thinking among the execs.

And with the big goal of getting each business to engage in moonshot thinking, Eileen Bartholomew introduced everyone to prize theory, referencing a comprehensive article by McKinsey on philanthropic prizes. She and Chris Frangione then led them all in a wild improvised exercise in prize design (one that made me thankful our production team was tight).

I dearly hope these giant companies launch the challenges they drafted that afternoon because they’re all positioned to solve major problems which could truly change the world. And that would be the best possible outcome from four days of cross-pollinating big thoughts.