Defenders of the traditional usage have argued that the masculine pronouns he, his, and him can be used generically to refer to men and women. This analysis of the generic use of he is linguistically doubtful. If he were truly a gender-neutral form, we would expect that it could be used to refer to the members of any group containing both men and women. But in fact the English masculine form is an odd choice when it refers to a female member of such a group.
There is something plainly disconcerting about sentences such as "Each of the stars of It Happened One Night [i.e., Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert] won an Academy Award for his performance." In this case, the use of his forces the reader to envision a single male who stands as the representative member of the group, a picture that is at odds with the image that comes to mind when we picture the stars of It Happened One Night. Thus he is not really a gender-neutral pronoun; rather, it refers to a male who is to be taken as the representative member of the group referred to by its antecedent. The traditional usage, then, is not simply a grammatical convention; it also suggests a particular pattern of thought.
Many writers sidestep the problem by avoiding the relevant constructions. In place of "Every student handed in his assignment," they write "All the students handed in their assignments"; in place of "A taxpayer must appear for his hearing in person," they write "Taxpayers must appear for their hearings in person," and so on.
Even when using the relevant constructions, however, many writers never use masculine pronouns as generics. In a series of sample sentences such as "A patient who doesn't accurately report __ sexual history to the doctor runs the risk of misdiagnosis," an average of 46 percent of the Usage Panel chose a coordinate form (her/his, his or her, and so on), 3 percent chose the plural pronoun (although the actual frequency of the plural in writing is far higher than this number would suggest), 2 percent chose the feminine pronoun, another 2 percent chose an indefinite or a definite article, and 7 percent gave no response or felt that no pronoun was needed to complete the sentence.
As a substitute for coordinate forms such as his/her or her and his, third person plural forms, such as their, have a good deal to recommend them: they are admirably brief and entirely colloquial and may be the only sensible choice in informal style; for example, in the radio commercial that says “Make someone happy--give them a goose-down Christmas,” where him would be misleading and her or him would be fussy. At least one major British publisher has recently adopted this usage for its learners' dictionaries, where one may read such sentences as If someone says they are “winging it,” they mean that they are improvising their way. But in formal style, this option is perhaps less risky for a publisher of reference books than for an individual writer, who may be misconstrued as being careless or ignorant rather than attuned to the various grammatical and political nuances of the use of the masculine pronoun as generic pronoun. What is more, this solution ignores a persistent intuition that expressions such as everyone and each student should in fact be treated as grammatically singular. Writers who are concerned about avoiding both grammatical and social problems are best advised to use coordinate forms such as his or her.
Some writers see no need to use a personal pronoun implying gender unless absolutely necessary; in the sample sentence A child who develops this sort of rash on ___ hands should probably be kept at home for a couple of days, 6 percent of the Usage Panel completed the sentence with the. In addition, some writers have proposed other solutions to the use of he as a generic pronoun, such as the introduction of wholly new gender-neutral pronouns like s/he or hiser, or the switching between feminine and masculine forms in alternating sentences, paragraphs, or chapters.
In contrast to these innovations, many writers use the masculine pronoun as generic in all cases. For the same series of sample sentences, the average percentage of Usage Panel members who consistently completed the sentences with his was 37. This course is grammatically unexceptionable, but the writer who follows it must be prepared to incur the displeasure of readers who regard this pattern as a mark of insensitivity or gender discrimination. When a majority of writers are taking care to avoid the masculine as generic, the writer who uses it in this way may invite the inference that there is some pointed reason for referring to the representative instance as male. The entire question is unlikely to be resolved in the near future.