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A recent radio headline was

Another member of the Canadian Armed Forces has taken his own life. This is the fourth suicide this week.

The presence of the word another somehow left me with the impression that the sentence meant all the suicides, or even all the Armed Forces members, are male. I happen to know that neither of those constraints is true. I also suspect the radio headline writer didn't intend to suggest that. Had the headline been:

A member of the Canadian Armed Forces has taken his own life. This is the fourth suicide this week.

... then I would not have drawn the same conclusions. I know how to write this sentence without implying anything about the gender of the latest soldier (use they/their, change verbs to eliminate any need for a possessive pronoun, etc) but I am curious about why saying another, and thus referring to a series of events, has (for me) the effect of blurring that possessive pronoun back so that it somehow applies to the whole series.

Am I the only person who is influenced by another like this? How do these sound?

Another student has missed his deadline for applying

Another farmer has put her farm up for sale

If another has this effect, does it have a name? I would probably avoid the effect by omitting another where there was a second sentence (as in the radio headline) to carry that information, and keeping it but rewording the rest to avoid possessive pronouns when there wasn't. But am I just being overly careful?

  • Grammatically, another implies neither male nor female, but context may do so. If you think or know that some of the suicides were female, or even if you don't, you can remove any suggestion of male or female by writing Another member of the Canadian Armed Forces has taken their own life. – Barrie England Jan 21 '14 at 16:04
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    I would take "member of the Canadian Armed Forces" to refer to all of them and "his" to be describing just him. The language you used doesn't seem to indicate any gender of the other people that took their own lives to me, just that they were all members of the Canadian Armed Forces. – starsplusplus Jan 21 '14 at 16:07
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I find this usage perfectly acceptable. *An*other -- one single person in the Canadian Armed Forces -- is simply later specified to be male.

Be more careful when addressing a mixed group, however. For example, avoid:

Does anyone want to drive his own car?

(Of course in common speech, we just gloss over the number and gender issue by using "their".)

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The problem you describe is a function of the lack of gender neutral singular third person singular pronouns and pronominal adjectives in English. The third person plural versions are gender neutral (they, them, their, theirs).

We also have a cultural pattern of using a male form of pronoun or noun when referring to an unknown person or group, largely driven by historical patterns of viewing men as the principle actors or persons worthy of note in a wide range of activities. To some degree, in an effort to undo the suggestion that women are not to be considered, patterns have emerged that use he or she and him or her, or elided constructs like s/he when the gender is unknown. However, this can be somewhat clumsy in speech or non-technical writing. To counteract the historical distortion, some people deliberately use female pronouns for unspecified persons, or they rotate gender usage (but maintain it within a given logical reference).

If you are using a singular reference for an unknown person and you use the male pronoun, most people would not necessarily assume that the subject was male. Because another calls for a singular pronominal reference, you are stuck with choosing a male or female referent. Again, these days most people would not assume that the pronoun conveys gender about all unspecified individuals being discussed.

Some people argue for using the gender neutral they, them or their following terms like another to resolve this gender ambiguity. However, I think the introduction of numerical ambiguity causes more harm than good.

  • so are you more likely to assume all the farmers are female than all the students are male? – Kate Gregory Jan 21 '14 at 16:18
  • @KateGregory I would not assume anything about the gender of any of the farmers except the one now being referenced. It seems likely that the reporter may be aware of the gender of the farmer who just put the farm up for sale and chose her for that reason. As for the rest, I have no idea. – bib Jan 21 '14 at 16:21

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