Learn when you should use "he," "she," "he/she," and "they." [UPDATE: The Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook changed their recommendations about the singular "they" in late March of 2017. This post will be updated soon. In the meantime, the short story is that Chicago said it's now OK to use singular "they" for transgender people, and the AP made more extensive revisions, which are detailed here: AP Style Updates.]
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.
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 the 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 [plural] 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.