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I wish I had a pound for every document I wrote as a poly lecturer referring to the rules and regulations affecting students. Many times I was faced with having to say such things as "A student must hand in his or her coursework by the stated deadline..." or put it into the plural "Students must hand in their coursework [or is it 'courseworks'?]..."

This problem haunts me still today and I have reluctantly but determinedly decide to swim with the tide and use their as the possessive belonging to the general case where there is no simple alternative. (I don't regard forced rephrasing as "simple". I regard it rather as "oppressive".)

My argument would be that we have many nouns in English that can be masculine or feminine and these are ideal when writing about the general case: "If you partner is feeling neglected then you should..." but then you bump up against the pronoun or the possessive which forces you to choose. Personally, I find it clumsy and stylistically disruptive to say "If your partner feels neglected then you should show him or her that..." and would (now, at least) prefer to say "...you should show them that...", accepting that "them" and "their" can now refer to singular persons in the general case.

No, I am not entirely happy with it but the problem is not my lack of logic or my grammatical ignorance but a rather obvious lacuna in the English language that we would be sensible to fill, as we have done in other cases. If "them" and "their" seem not to be the ideal choices, then I think that all the rest are so much worse.

Peter Harvey

The curious thing, to my mind at any rate, is that no-one has proposed using it as the epicene pronoun, even though it is used happily to refer to babies and small children.

The Dangling Modifier

I've never heard the pronoun 'it' used to refer to babies and small children. Some people use 'it' for animals, but even then many people prefer to use 'he' or 'she' rather than 'it' - especially when talking about pets.

May be it's a cultural thing. It seems that we are - throughout the English-speaking world - so sentimental about animals we will never use 'it' to describe them. It sounds cold; it is the pronoun for inanimate objects or abstracts.

I don't think 'it' is ever going to take off as a pronoun to denote other human beings.

Peter Harvey

A Google search for <<"it was crying" baby>> comes up with 5 million hits. The first page (10 hits) shows:

* Now, I haven't had much experience with babies before, so I didn't really know why it was crying or what I had to do with it,

* How could someone harm their baby like that just because it was crying?

* "When the first baby came out, it was crying and kicking,

* The baby is so cute i seen it when i went into the woods one day it was crying and looking around for his (sic) mother in the cold

Some other links are ambiguous and may refer to animals or foetuses, but four clear references in the first ten is good enough for me.

The British National Corpus, which doesn't do proximity searches, gave me this in 50 random quotations for "baby":

* That's why Briant found it odd you should refer to the baby as `;it';; it wasn't the use of a neuter term, but the way you sounded when you said it. (Claire Rayner)

There were also several with he/she forms. I have not said that such forms are never used but, as with animals, it is often not easy to tell a baby's sex from its mere appearance and an epicene form is needed.

The OED has:

* baby-jumper, a hoop or frame suspended by an elastic attachment, so that a young child secured in it may exercise its limbs

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