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I have a doubt. The economist Keynes in a book wrote:

The power to become habituated to his surroundings is a marked characteristic of mankind.

I would have used "its" instead but since English is not my mother-tongue and Keynes was probably a good writer I am sure I am the one being mistaken. Can anyone please explain ?

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or one's surroundings –  shinynewbike Jan 18 '11 at 7:57

4 Answers 4

The use of 'his' refers to each 'member' of mankind. Mankind is generally referred to in this way, i.e. as a group of individual people, as opposed to a single, monolithic body, which would be suggested by using 'its'.

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I think this answer goes to the point of the question, where several other answers have missed it. –  Colin Fine Jan 18 '11 at 18:00

This is an old conundrum. English has no proper neutral pronoun to either a male or female person. It is usually used to refer to inanimate or not-human things.

You could say:

The power to become habituated to one's surroundings is a marked characteristic of mankind.

But the usage of one as a pronoun has come to sound a bit pretentious. I believe there is a shift occurring in english where their is being used in the singular and becoming acceptable.

The power to become habituated to their surroundings is a marked characteristic of mankind.

Some would take it a step further.

The power to become habituated to their surroundings is a marked characteristic of humans.

But that's somehow less poetic. Humans seems more clinical, and mankind more familial and grandiose somehow.

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I don't think "one" makes a good substitute third-person pronoun. It's used instead of "you" in formal documents, i.e. it's a second person pronoun. –  Marthaª Jan 18 '11 at 19:06
    
@Martha Actually, in British affected speech, it can also substitute for "I". I'm using it in the sense of "a person of the speaker's kind; such as the speaker himself or herself" see: dictionary.reference.com/browse/one –  ghoppe Jan 18 '11 at 19:12
    
Lest we forget, there is also humankind. –  Jon Purdy Jan 27 '12 at 5:05

"his" (male pronoun) emphasises that it's a human.

"its" (neuter pronoun) would suggest a less human thing or entity.

Compare:

Jeremy the baker got used to his surroundings

and

Fido the dog got used to its surroundings

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I think a lot of people would still use his or her for a dog. But it's hard to think of an inanimate example of something getting used to surroundings. –  Tesserex Jan 18 '11 at 14:20
    
How about a ghost? –  smirkingman Jan 18 '11 at 14:32

In English, male pronouns are used for single persons of unknown gender. However, feminists and other groups find this fundamental grammar offensive, so they force awkward and incorrect phrasings like one's and the singular their.

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This response does not answer the question "Why use 'his' in association with the word 'mankind'?" –  J.T. Grimes Jan 27 '12 at 6:24

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