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Generic Singular Pronouns

Learn when you should use "he," "she," "he/she," and "they."

By
Mignon Fogarty
October 20, 2011
Episode #029

Today's topic is a contentious language landmine. Can you use “they” and “their” when you don’t know a person’s sex? In other words, can “they” and “their” be gender-neutral singular pronouns?

To be clear, the problem we’re talking about today is how to complete a sentence such as  "When a student succeeds …" At this point writers struggle because English has a big, gaping pronoun hole--we have no word to describe a single person if we don’t know whether he or she is male or female. We could write “When a student succeeds, he should thank his teacher," "she should thank her teacher," "he or she should thank his or her teacher," or something else.

Whiplash Grammar

A listener named Betty summed it up best by saying that “he or she” seems too awkward and “he” seems sexist. I’ll add that exclusively using “she” also seems sexist, the hybrid “s/he” seems silly and awkward, and switching between “he” and “she” can be downright confusing to readers. A listener named Bryan called switching between “he” and “she” “whiplash grammar,” which I loved. Finally, we have the solution that everyone loves to hate—using the personal pronoun “they,” which breaks they generic singular pronounthe rule that you don't use a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent.

Honestly, I don't think there is a perfect solution, and for a while I avoided the question because I knew that no matter what I said I was going to make someone angry.  But then Ken from Denver wrote in literally* pleading for help. He had obviously spent a lot of time looking through the Chicago Manual of Style and had concluded that their answer is “My, that's a toughie. Try to avoid it.” I agree that an answer like that seems unhelpful, so I decided to muster up some courage and try to do better.

How to Avoid the Pronoun Problem

First, some of you might disagree that using "he" is sexist; but even if you disagree, you should still at least consider the alternatives because all of the major style guides that I checked recommend against using "he" in a generic way. (I specifically checked MLA, APA, and Chicago, and I know I have seen it in others. The Associated Press allows "he," but also says it’s usually better to rewrite your sentence.)

When I am confronted with this problem, I first take the Chicago route and ask if there is any way to avoid the problem. Usually this involves simply making the original noun plural. You could say, "When students [plura succeed, they should thank their teacher." Sometimes more extensive rewriting is required, and if necessary, I'll do it.

Rewriting is almost always possible, but if it isn't, then you have to make a choice.

"He or She" Works in Formal Writing

If I'm writing a formal document, I'll use "he or she" or "him or her." For example, When you find the person responsible, tell him or her to report to my office. Admittedly, it's awkward, but if you're already using formal language, I don't think it's too distracting. (That’s also the solution recommended by The American Heritage College Dictionary.)

Can We Make Up New Pronouns?

Over the years, people have tried to introduce new pronouns such as "zie," "zir," and "thon" to fill the void, but none of these has had much success. Surprisingly, Dr. Elaine Stotko, from the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, and her student, Margaret Troyer, reported a few years ago that school children in Baltimore were using the slang word "yo" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun--not in a way to get attention, like Yo, check this out, and not as a form of "your" as in yo momma, but like a real singular pronoun. I haven’t heard of this isolated trend spreading, but it’s an interesting development.

So, what should you do? Certainly you shouldn’t write When you find the person responsible, tell yo to report to my office, even if it’s not a formal document.

Is "They" the Future of Generic Pronouns?

I will state for the record that I am a firm believer that someday "they" will be the acceptable choice for this situation. English currently lacks a word that fits the bill, and many people are already either mistakenly or purposely using "they" as a singular generic personal pronoun; so it seems logical that rules will eventually move in that direction.

For Now, Know Your Audience When Making a Decision

Nevertheless, it takes a bold, confident, and possibly reckless person to use "they" with a singular antecedent today. I could almost feel people's blood pressure rising as I started to imply that it is OK to use "they."

The thing is, if you are a respected editor in charge of writing a style guide for your entire organization, you can get away with making it acceptable to use "they" with a singular antecedent. I would even encourage you to do so, and there are a variety of credible references that will back you up (1,2,3) including the Random House Dictionary and Fowler's Modern English Usage. You would be in the company of revered authors such as Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, and Shakespeare. But, if you are responsible to superiors, there's a good chance that at least one of them will think you are careless or ignorant if you use "they" with a singular antecedent. When I'm writing for a client who doesn't have a style guide, I always, always use "he or she."

And that brings me to an important point: everyone who hires writers or assigns writing needs to have a style guide entry on this topic. Writers can waste a lot of time trying to decide what to do (especially in organizations where people collaborate on documents), and it is better to have one single style that some people don't agree with than to have different writers doing different things so that company documents are all willy-nilly.

So here's the bottom line: Rewrite your sentences to avoid the problem. If that's not possible, check to see if the people you are writing for have a style guide. If not, use "he or she" if you want to play it safe, or use "they" if you feel bold and are prepared to defend yourself.

Thank you for listening, and thank you to Steve Thornton for help preparing the transcript.

References

  1. Ask Oxford.com, "Ask the Experts," (accessed December 6, 2006).Burchfield, R. W., ed.
  2. The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. Third edition. New York: Oxford, 1996, p. 779.
  3. Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.0.1). Random House, Inc., s.v. "they," http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/they (accessed December 6, 2006). (See the Usage Note about halfway down the page.)

Additional References

*I'm not misusing the word literally here; his e-mail subject line was “Plea for help.”

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