When I was a kid, back in the dark ages, our teachers told us to use masculine pronouns when referring to a generic, unspecified individual.
For example, “When a police officer stops you, follow his instructions and don’t talk back.” (Police community relations are on my mind lately, sorry.) Police officers can be male or female, but in English, as in many languages, the masculine pronoun was traditionally used when the individual’s gender is not specified.
Now we are much more conscious of gender bias, and it is no longer acceptable to assert the dominance of the masculine form. Some people have been trying to invent gender-neutral pronouns, and there’s been a lot written about it. The Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog seems to have a good summary.
But that doesn’t help you now, trying to turn in a term paper that isn’t going to come back with red marks all over it.
The culture has tried to solve it by substituting “their.” “When a police officer stops you, follow their instructions and don’t talk back.” This works on Facebook and a lot of other places, but it is not grammatically correct, and, depending on who is reading it, say a journal editor or a professor, you might get dinged for it.
The reason it is grammatically incorrect is that “police officer” is singular and “their” is plural.
You could say, “When a police officer stops you, follow his or her instructions and don’t talk back.” This is awkward sounding, but is both grammatically correct and gender neutral.
Another solution is to write, “When police officers stop you, follow their instructions and don’t talk back.” This is both less awkward and grammatically correct, although not entirely satisfactory. This is the solution I personally use when possible. Sometimes it doesn’t fit the rest of the paragraph, however.
Another solution, especially if you’re writing for a liberal-leaning audience, which might include your college professor, is to consciously use the feminine pronoun. “When a police officer stops you, follow her instructions and don’t talk back.” This does make a political statement, and might not be well received, so you have to know your audience.
— Vickie Deneroff