Arrant Pedantry


They and the Gender-Neutral Pronoun Dilemma

A few weeks ago, as a submission for my topic contest, Bob Scopatz suggested I tackle the issue of gender-neutral pronouns in English. In his comment he said, “I dislike alternating between ‘he’ and ‘she’. I despise all variants of ‘he/she’, ‘s/he’, etc. I know that I should not use ‘they’, but it feels closest to what I really want. Could you maybe give us the latest on this topic and tell me if there is any hope for a consensus usage in my lifetime?” It must be a timely topic, because I’ve read three different articles and watched a video on it in the past week.

The first was Allan Metcalf’s article at Lingua Franca on failed attempts to fill gaps in the language. He says that the need for a gender-neutral pronoun is a gap that has existed for centuries, defying attempts to fill it with neologisms. He notes almost in passing that they is another option but that “filling a singular gap with a plural doesn’t satisfy” every one.

The next was June Casagrande’s article in the Burbank Leader. She gives the subject a little more attention, discussing the awkwardness of using “he or she” or “him or her” every time and the rising acceptance of the so-called singular they. But then, in similar fashion to the it’s-not-wrong-but-you-still-shouldn’t-do-it approach, she says that she won’t judge others who use singular they, but she’s going to hold off on it herself (presumably because she doesn’t want to be judged negatively for it). She also overlooks some historical facts, namely that they has been used this way since Chaucer’s day and that it wasn’t until the end of the eighteenth century that it was declared ungrammatical by Lindley Murray.

That leads to the next article, an interview with Professor Anne Curzan at Visual Thesaurus. She discusses the “almost hypocritical position” of having to grade students’ papers for grammar and usage issues that she doesn’t believe in, like singular they. She tackles the allegation that it’s incorrect because they is plural, saying that in a sentence like “I was talking to a friend of mine, and they said it was a terrible movie”, “they is clearly singular, because it’s referring to a friend.” This probably won’t carry much weight with some people who believe that it’s innately plural and that you can’t just declare it to be singular when it suits you. Ah, but here’s the rub: English speakers did the same thing with plural you in centuries past.

Originally, English had two second-person pronouns, singular thou and plural you. But speakers began to use you as a formal singular pronoun (think French vous, Spanish usted, or German Sie). Then it began to be used in more and more situations, until thou was only used when talking down to someone and then disappeared from the language altogether. Now we have a pronoun that agrees with verbs like a plural but clearly refers to singular entities all the time. If you can do it, why can’t they?

Further, Steven Pinker argues that “everyone and they are not an ‘antecedent’ and a ‘pronoun’ referring to the same person”, but rather that “they are a ‘quantifier’ and a ‘bound variable,’ a different logical relationship.” He says that “Everyone returned to their seats means “For all X, X returned to X’s seat.” In other words, there are logical objections to the logical objections to singular they.

Then there came Emily Brewster’s Ask the Editor video at Merriam-Webster Online. She notes that for the eighteenth-century grammarians who proscribed singular they and prescribed generic he, “inaccuracy of gender was less troublesome than inaccuracy of number.” She then concludes that “all this effort to avoid a usage that’s centuries old strikes some of us as strange” and makes the recommendation, “Perhaps everyone should just do their best in the situations they find themselves in, even if their best involves they as a singular pronoun.”

Rather than join the ranks of grammarians who walk through all the arguments in favor of singular they but then throw their hands up in defeat and tell you to avoid it because it’s not accepted yet, I’m taking a different track and recommending its use. The problem with not using it until it becomes accepted is that it won’t become accepted until enough people—especially people with some authority in the field of usage—use it and say it’s okay to use it. If we sit around waiting for the day when it’s declared to be acceptable, we’ll be waiting a long time. But while there are still people who will decry it as an error, as I’ve said before, you can’t please everyone. And as Bob said in his original comment, they is what many people already use or want to use. I think it’s the best solution for a common problem, and it’s time to stop wringing our hands over it and embrace it.

So, to answer Bob’s question if there will ever be consensus on the issue in our lifetime, I’d say that while there might not be consensus at the moment, I’m hopeful that it will come. I think the tide has already begun to turn as more and more linguists, lexicographers, editors, and writers recommend it as the best solution to a common problem.

22 Responses to They and the Gender-Neutral Pronoun Dilemma

  1. Marc Leavitt says:

    German uses the pronoun sie as she in the third person, they in the third person plural and Sie with a capital “s” as formal you. It doesn’t seem to cause a problem. Prescriptivists are people who know how to use Jewish guilt to enforce their “rules.” Or, as a friend once told me, they should just get over it. I used to use the he and she version in copy, and it drove me crazy. Besides, nobody talks that way.

  2. Taylor Bradford says:

    What if we went the Chinese route where “ta” can mean he/she/it? Generally in speech the context makes it obvious which of those three options is being invoked, even in a group consisting of a boy, a girl, and a robot it’s really not that hard. When “ta” is written out it becomes even more obvious as they simply add a gender identifier (?/?? radical to the word, (??(boy) ? (girl)).

    I don’t literally mean we adopt the word “ta” though that certainly is within the realm of possibility since English borrows constantly. But if you were to test it out, it really isn’t that hard to have a neutral term like that. Or we could just use “they” and get over ourselves I suppose.

  3. Marc Leavitt says:

    Pardon the error in the earlier comment. “Sie” in the third person means “she”; “er” is the pronoun meaning “he.” My fail.

  4. Stan says:

    Nice summary and a sensible conclusion. I don’t object to workarounds like he or she or even s/he in small doses, but singular they seems the best fit in most cases. Certainly it’s the closest thing the language has to a general solution, and none of the many, many invented alternatives are likely to make much headway beyond niche usage.

  5. Erin Brenner says:

    Hear, hear! I allow “they” in copy aimed at an audience that will accept it (often, copy that has a more casual tone). If the audience will be so distracted by a singular “they” that they miss the point of the text, I’ll write around the problem, preferably making the antecedent plural.

  6. Lang Spell says:

    It is hard for me to accept a plural pronoun for a singular antecedent, but current usage has, in fact, adopted “they” and I accept it but use it as little as possible. The English Standard Version of the Bible (updated from Revised Standard versions) has adopted it. Also, it seems that everyone understands it.

    I enjoyed your article.

  7. I reassure myself and others with the matter-of-fact approach the Concise Oxford Dictionary (10th edition) takes that ‘[they is] used to refer to a person of unspecified sex (in place of either “he” or “he or she”).’ The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised 3rd edition) acknowledges Fowler’s own dislike of ‘the practice’ but goes on to cite evidence from the OED that ‘they’ has often been ‘used in reference to a singular noun [or pronoun]’ from the 16th century onwards. That seems like a reasonable length of time for us all to have become accustomed to its use.

  8. Great post, and nice suggestion Bob! This is such a controversial topic – some people accept the singular “they” without a problem, but others will argue against it and insist on using he/she. I’ve seen some people suggest using ze, hir, and zie/zir as well.

  9. Taylor Bradford says:

    Sorry I didn’t check, but apparently this blog doesn’t support Chinese characters, so my previous post is a bit muddled.

  10. Lang Spell says:

    Now that I’m posting again, I think I might like to switch to “ta” and see if could work for us.

  11. Jonathon says:

    Marc: Good point. German’s second-person formal pronoun is a violation of not just grammatical number but grammatical person, if you want to be really strict about it. And yet no one complains that it’s ungrammatical.

    Taylor: The problem with inventing or borrowing a new pronoun is that it just doesn’t work. Pronouns are what’s often referred to as a closed class—it’s very difficult, but not impossible, to add new ones. The last time English borrowed new personal pronouns was about a millennium ago when an influx of Norse speakers gave us they.

    Stan: Personally, I’ve never liked the slashed forms (especially s/he), but he or she can be fine in moderation, as you say. It can rather quickly become repetitive, though.

    Erin: I’m surprised at how often I find a singular they in second edits. I figure if academics are using it and editors are missing it, it’s probably safe to let them go. I haven’t heard from any of our readers that were annoyed by it.

    Lang Spell: That’s why I brought up you. It was originally a plural pronoun and still conjugates like a plural, but nobody has any problem with it being used as a singular. If everyone starts using it as a singular, then it’s singular.

    William: Good point. I think the only thing that has prevented us from being accustomed to its use is the concerted, continued effort to tell us that it’s wrong.

    Lauren: There’s certainly nothing wrong with he/she or other workaround, though they can get a little tedious, and of course it takes time to reword things. Call my cynical, but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort to avoid a construction that’s so widely used and understood just because some people don’t like it.

  12. Bob Scopatz says:

    Thanks so much for the cogent thoughts. Lang Spell and I work together and this discussion comes up often in our multi-person collaborative writing processes. I linked the whole team to your article.

    I like the approach that is based on how people actually speak, but realize that a rule based on informal speech isn’t really going to satisfy the need for something that helps in technical writing.

    I like the idea of a new borrowing from another language, but I can’t see how that would work better than any other invented solution. If people don’t speak that way, it’s not really THE solution (at least not to my dilemma).

    I’m probably going to stick with “they” and edit it whenever one of my colleagues cares enough to raise the issue. I won’t go to the wall defending it, but at least now I have link I can provide!

    Thank you!

  13. Jonathon says:

    Thanks, Bob. I’m glad you liked it. You might also want to take a look at this post by John McIntyre, an editor for the Baltimore Sun. He says he’s stopped changing singular they in his work and has yet to receive an irate letter about it.

    The great thing about singular they, I think, is that even though a lot of people stigmatize it, it comes so naturally to so many people that we don’t even notice it in print. It slips past my fellow editors all the time. You often have to consciously look for it in order to find it, and even then it frequently slips under the radar.

  14. Warsaw Will says:

    From New English File Advanced (for learners):
    ‘Imagine a friend of yours started to go out with a new partner and they asked you for your opinion. If you really didn’t like them, would you? …’

    Singular they is entirely standard in EFL, especially after ‘anybody’ etc., and I happily use it all the time. Personally I find it much the most elegant solution. Nobody complains about singular you, after all, do they?

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  16. Catherine Barber says:

    See my Comment re using ‘they/their’ or not on:

    I often can’t see what the dilemma is. To my mind: If it’s not totally wrong just USE it, if YOU feel okay doing this. And are prepared to take any flak from those who disapprove.

  17. Jonathon says:

    I think that last part is the sticking point for a lot of people. Some people seem to feel that if anyone objects to a usage, then you should avoid the usage. As I said in that other post, I don’t think the peevers deserve to have that kind of power.

    And like you said, maybe it’s not even much of a dilemma.

  18. Catherine Barber says:

    OK, the ‘peevers’, like anybody, are all entitled to their own opinions but as you further say, Jonathon, they shouldn’t have that kind of power: to dictate what one ‘shouldn’t do’, when what one’s doing isn’t actually wrong. Or, more importantly, harming anybody else.

    I find loads of things annoying – and might well say so too! – but I hope I don’t go dictating what ‘shouldn’t’ be done as I know I don’t have that entitlement.

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  20. CD says:

    In response to Warsaw Will, I think the given example makes things worse rather than better.

    “From New English File Advanced (for learners):
    ‘Imagine a friend of yours started to go out with a new partner and they asked you for your opinion. If you really didn’t like them, would you? …’”

    The example literally tells me that the friend and partner together asked me for my opinion; whereas I think the writer intended to say that the friend was asking for my opinion of the partner.

  21. a man says:

    I continue to use ‘he’ in writing and conversation when referring to a generic person, and I have also preserved ‘mankind’ and ‘chairman’. I can’t abide the new gender-correct (and gender-retributive) dialect and refuse to be cowed into altering perfectly innocent words to fit some feminist’s political agenda. ‘They’ is no longer a singular pronoun (if it ever really was), and when they use ‘they’ to describe a single person (as they did on NPR this morning), they try my patience. In any event, if I must choose between feeling at home with 19th century authors and their 21st century imitators, there just isn’t any contest.

    As a man thinks, so he is.

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