Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

He or she – or they?

with 16 comments

Everyone did their best to write good English.

Some strict grammarians would say the sentence above is wrong and should read:

Everyone did his best to write good English.

But this is old-fashioned tosh. There is no excuse for writing sentences using ‘his’ or ‘he’, when the ‘he’ might be a ‘she’.

Some well-meaning writers who are doing their best to be inclusive use terms such as ‘s/he’, or ‘he/she’, or ‘his or her’ (usually in the traditional male first, female second order). While there is nothing wrong with this, the result isn’t pretty on the page and is distracting to the reader.

Simple solution

The solution is simple and grammatically correct. ‘They’ (and ‘their’) can be used to refer to a single person who might be female or male. Various dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary, say quite clearly that ‘they’ can be used to mean ‘he’ or ‘she’.

Here’s an excellent post about this topic on the brilliant Sentence first blog.

‘Use has become commonplace’

And here’s an extract from an article that appeared in the Guardian newspaper in April 2017:

Perhaps the most success around fixing semantic sexism has been had by the increase of “they” being used as a singular pronoun. People have grappled with English’s lack of a gender-neutral personal pronoun for centuries, often falling back on they. Chaucer and Shakespeare used they as a singular pronoun. Jane Austen uses they in this way 75 times in Pride and Prejudice. However, it is only recently that its use has become commonplace. They was named word of the year in 2015 by the American Dialect Society and, around the same time, the Washington Post style guide ratified the use of “they” as a singular. (scroll down the article for the info on ‘they’.)

Gratuitous modifiers or the lady bus driver

Top scientist or top female scientist? 

Marketing man — or woman?

She’s so intolerant, but he doesn’t suffer fools gladly

She’s such a tomboy

Old wives’ tales — good or bad?

Ladies first?

Jack of all trades

Sorting the women from the girls

When is a man not a man?

Am I allowed to say that?

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16 Responses

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  1. You are right, but the plural pronoun still feels wrong–at least inconsistent. You almost always can write around it. I saw this sentence the other day, on Facebook’s Help section: “When a person is blocked from a group, they cannot see the group or any stories about it.” FB could easily say “that person” instead of “they.”

    Patricia O’Conner cites use of the numberless, genderless “they/them/their” by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Johnson, etc. Then the 19th C happened. 🙂

    Michael Farrell

    08/01/2010 at 5:22 pm

    • Hi, Michael — you are right — it is often possible to get round this problem by writing the sentence a different way. However, ‘they’ doesn’t sound wrong to me — although I’m sure lots of people would agree with your viewpoint. I prefer ‘they’ to ‘that person’ in the FB sentence you cite, but I much prefer ‘that person’ to ‘he’!

      Many thanks for your interesting comments.

      Deborah

      08/01/2010 at 5:38 pm

  2. A linguist details the arguments in favour of singular ‘they’:

    Extract:

    I’ve wanted for some time to have one place to send everyone who complains about singular they, a single page that can debunk whatever junk they’re peddling against it. There’s been lots of great stuff written about why singular they is acceptable, but every time I want to smash the arguments against it, I have to waste time jumping through old Language Log posts and books and whatnot, so I figured I’d finally go about summarizing it all. Without further ado, here’s the evidence for singular they, and why you ought to stop “correcting” it.

    Deborah

    24/08/2010 at 9:37 am

    • Doyle is guilty of the same emotional, personal attacks that he accuses prescriptivists of.

      It’s hard to justify use of “they” by saying it’s been in common use since Chaucer. No one I know still speaks Chaucerian or Elizabethan English.

      I’d rewrite the CS Lewis bit. Perhaps “She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water wearing clothes.” (Or “clothed,” etc.) Or start the clause “we ought to….” I’ve never seen a they/their construction that I couldn’t readily recast with little effort.

      Michael Farrell

      07/09/2010 at 3:34 pm

      • Hi, Michael — thanks. You’re correct: most sentences can be recast to be gender-neutral without using the controversial ‘they’ or ‘their’. I know this topic provokes strong disagreement, and it’s always interesting to hear both sides of the argument — that’s why I posted the New York Times‘ viewpoint below.

        For reference, here’s the ‘C.S. Lewis’ extract from Doyle’s Motivated Grammar blog:

        Suppose you were reading and came to the following line:

        “She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.”

        Would you …
        (a) continue reading, because that’s a perfectly acceptable sentence, or
        (b) throw a tantrum and insist that the author is an imbecile speeding the wholesale destruction of the English language?

        If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re probably answering (a). If you’re answering (b), I regret to inform you that you hate the writing of C. S. Lewis.

        Incidentally, he doesn’t cite only Chaucer’s and Elizabethan use of English in support of his argument.

        Deborah

        07/09/2010 at 4:03 pm

        • I’d (c) continue reading happily, after the mildly jarring speed-bump of a mismatched pronoun. That doesn’t mean I “hate” the writing of C.S. Lewis. There’s good writing and then there’s grammatically precise writing: two very different things.

          Michael Farrell

          07/09/2010 at 6:19 pm

          • No, of course it doesn’t. That’s just a bit of hyperbole, I think. Yes, ‘good’ and ‘grammatically precise’ — two different things entirely. The latter can, after all, be unreadable. Thanks, Michael.

            Deborah

            07/09/2010 at 6:25 pm

            • Here’s one I just heard on the car radio, then pondered the whole commute: “To each their own.”

              “To each his own” is such a set phrase that it doesn’t bother me much–akin to “man’s best friend.” But you could also readily say, without too much violence, “his or her own” or even “one’s own.” Whichever way you go, to thine own self be true.

              Michael Farrell

              07/09/2010 at 8:18 pm

              • That’s interesting. Being true to mine own self, I have always, unthinkingly, said, ‘each to their own’. I don’t know how common that is in comparison with ‘to each their own’, but I think I must have been brought up saying it that way round (different word order) and using ‘their’ not ‘his’. I’ve never actually thought about it before. Thank you!

                Deborah

                07/09/2010 at 8:39 pm

  3. Here’s Philip B. Corbett, standards editor at the New York Times, on singular they:

    Can a Person Be a ‘They’?

    No. Miss Thistlebottom was right about this one. In careful writing, we continue to use “they” as a plural pronoun that should have a plural antecedent.

    Often writers resort to “they” after a singular noun to avoid using a gender-specific pronoun in a general case. Here’s an example I cited in After Deadline last month:

    When a person enters search terms for a product or service, the search engine may display links where they can get a discount coupon from a retailer or coupon aggregator.

    In many cases, the problem can easily be avoided by starting with a plural noun: “When customers enter search terms …”

    Deborah

    07/09/2010 at 1:13 pm

  4. From The New York Times’ After Deadline column:

    Two reports from around the country raise the question: How far should a parent go when their child is bullied?

    The agreement problem would be easy to fix: make it “parents,” or make it “a child.”

    Deborah

    28/03/2011 at 11:15 am

    • Oxford Dictionaries on this.

      Extract:

      You can use the plural pronouns ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘their’ etc., despite the fact that, technically, they are referring back to a singular noun:

      If your child is thinking about a gap year, they can get good advice from this website.

      A researcher has to be completely objective in their findings.

      Some people object to the use of plural pronouns in this type of situation on the grounds that it’s ungrammatical. In fact, the use of plural pronouns to refer back to a singular subject isn’t new: it represents a revival of a practice dating from the 16th century. It’s increasingly common in current English and is now widely accepted both in speech and in writing.

      Deborah

      29/11/2011 at 2:58 pm

  5. Linguistics professor Geoffrey Pullum discusses singular ‘they’ (and Lady Bracknell).

    Extract:

    Some people may think I am pushing some kind of modern political correctness to avoid the apparent sexism of “Everyone should bring his own lunch,” but they are simply uninformed: singular they antedates modern feminism by hundreds of years.

    Deborah

    05/01/2012 at 3:40 pm

  6. Thanks for the link and kind words, Deborah. Very interesting discussion here.

    Stan

    30/01/2013 at 10:23 am

  7. I fundamentally disagree with this Guardian article, but I defend your right to read it. 🙂

    Wordwatch

    30/01/2015 at 6:28 pm


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