Submit your own Neatorama post and vote for others' posts to earn NeatoPoints that you can redeem for T-shirts, hoodies and more over at the NeatoShop!

Should We Stop Using the Singular "They"?

In formal English grammar, the pronoun "they" is always plural. There is no gender-nonspecific singular pronoun in English. This is a problem, for there is often a need to express such a pronoun.

There are alternatives. In graduate school, the use of gender-inclusive language was pounded into me, so I now reflexively use "he or she" or "s/he" or "his or her", even when writing for Neatorama. But it is awkward and some writers prefer the smoother if gramatically icky singular "they". Jenn Doll of The Atlantic is not among them. She wants English speakers and writers to use "he" and "she":

Let's talk about something. Let's talk about the "singular" they. That's when a writer or a speaker — a he or a she — is discussing someone who might be either a he or a she (it's unknown, or the writer doesn't intend to make a subject or object gender-specific and instead hopes to convey a universality of personhood). So instead of writing, say, he or she did x or y, the writer uses theyIt's everywhere, proliferating like fruit flies 'round a bowl of rotting bananas, bad writing surrounding bad writing. [...]

I'm all for a certain flexibility and adaptive ease with regard to language and how we use it. I'm happy to add three exclamation points to a sentence or write in ALL CAPS when it seems to fit the moment, especially online. But I see absolutely no reason other than laziness to start subbing our hes and shes with a clunky they, or our hises and hers with theirs. There is a reason we have distinct pronouns, and that is so we can be specific. If we don't know the specifics, we should try to find them out, or use one of those handy words — he or she or one, for instance — that get around the they problem. Peppering one's sentences with some hes and shes can be kind of nice, really, a way to assemble a collection of characters who are certainly more real and individualized than a collective they.

There is criticism that the use of he as the generic pronoun is an example of linguistic sexism of a sort, and I agree there's no need to always use he as the default if you don't know the gender of the person about whom you are speaking, or if you're using the pronoun to stand for persons of either gender. You can just as easily swap in a she; mix it up! Make it fun! Keep people on their toes! Maybe even create a new word, and make it happen! The message that something should be easy, that we all understand anyway, that it doesn't really matter and we should give up the fight may be the most galling part of this argument, though. Since when was writing or creating art with words (if you're being high-minded) supposed to be convenient? Since when was past history the rule for how we live in the present and future? Break the rules if you must, for a purpose, to make an impact. Don't do something because it's easy and everyone else is doing it. If a word sounds like it's landing with a horrid thump in your ear, it's landing that way to at least some of your readers. Every time I see a singular they, my inner grammatical spirit aches.

Link -via The Hairpin

UPDATE: In the comments, Gerard Van der Leun correctly points out that I forgot to include in the poll the traditional use of "he" is an implied gender nonspecific pronoun. I've now added it.

Which singular, gender non-specific pronoun should English speakers use?

While I have gone back and forth on this issue, I believe that They will win out.
Not to hurt Jenn's feelings, but people usually break rules to make things easier, not to make a statement. We can lay down the law about how and when to break rules but why would anyone take us seriously? When political correctness made "He" no longer acceptable the English language got a chunk bitten out of it; and you know what they say about Nature and vacuums.
So fuss and whine but the hole will be filled and filled with what's most familiar and readily available, no matter how inartistic.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
How about "People who think they can beat"...?

Dilemma solved, at least with this example. Using "he" when the gender is not specified seems wrong, and using "she" in the same instance seems like a conscious decision to make a small political point. Or I'm overthinking.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
The language has evolved. The singular they filled a hole in the language that needed to be filled. I think the only people who are still against using it are likely the ones who don't like it when language evolves. They want it to stay the way their teachers taught them, likely out of a textbook that predated the change. Unfortunately for them, evolution is a constant process. Language is defined by the people who use it, not by the teachers and textbook writers.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Quoting from "Shakespeare, Swift, Shelley, Scott, and Dickens, as well as many other English and American writers, have used they and its forms to refer to singular antecedents."

I won't discuss the authenticity or trustworthiness of (I do trust them), but this should be easy to verify, and 500 years of usage should be sufficient evidence that outweighs any possible modern "political correctness". There's also enough historical evidence that invented/coined words for a gender-neutral pronoun are not accepted in the long term (

As already mentioned, language evolves. Not "evolved", but "evolves", as in it is an ongoing change. You can't fight it. Unless you're the L'Académie française...
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
One should always use the "singular, gender non-specific pronoun" HE!

Don't make me come over there and slap some sense into him no matter what sex he may be.

PS: It is the fourth choice that should be in the poll. You know, the right answer.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
  2 replies
"You" used to be only plural, then it got used for a "polite" singular as well, now it's always used for both singular and plural (except for dialectical innovations). Looks like "they" is going the same route. Jenn, thou needst to get used to it.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
  2 replies
"They" is so much less awkward than "he or she" or "he/she" and less ridiculous than defaulting to "he" or alternating.

And, let's not forget, there are people who do not identify as either male or female (I am one), and the other options out there for gender-neutral *specific* singular pronouns are universally terrible.

"They" is fine.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
They has been used as a gender nonspecific pronoun for hundreds of years. The author writes "But I see absolutely no reason other than laziness to start subbing our hes and shes with a clunky they, or our hises and hers with theirs"
But she has it backwards. They is being subbed out with a clunky 'he or she' (really, which one is more elegant when you say/read them?). It just seems to me like she is annoyed by the convention and came up with a bunch of reasons why we should agree with her, and simply chose to ignore the facts about its historical usage.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
"s/he" is definitely the worst of both world.
Learn from the Germans: the neutral form happens to be the masculine. P/C and emancipation lead to every word now being a ridiculous hybrid or everything being said twice (by politicians and the like) to express f & m.. pointless.
One shouldn't overanalyze these things
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
I voted for using the singular 'they.' As has been pointed out, language is a living thing and usage changes over time; 'they' fills a void in the language. And if we can have a gender-neutral 'he' why not a singular 'they'? Besides, basing your usage on whether the subject has dangly bits in their underwear ignores the fact that gender is not actually binary. And how exactly do you go about finding out? "Excuse me, I need to know what kind of genitalia you have. It's for an article I'm writing."
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
There is no evolution of language here. Chaucer used a singular 'they' in Canturbury Tales in 1400, the Tynsdale Bible in the 1500s, the King James in the early 1600s, Shakespeare in the late 1600s, and so on. Lewis Carroll, Walt Whitman, George Eliot, William Thackeray and other famous authors used singular they. Anyone who thinks this is a recent invention, brought on perhaps by some sort of political correctness, does not know the history of our language.

Perhaps you think it's wrong in modern usage. You can appeal to William Safire and insist on 'he', and I can appeal to sources ranging from 'Fowler's Modern English Usage' to Grammar Girl. Yippee. So let's test it out.

Here's a line from C. S. Lewis's "Voyage of the Dawn Treader": “She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.” Do the "he" fans here serious think that should be ".. in his clothes"? I find the change from "her" to a "(gender-neutral) he" somewhat odd. (I believe this could replaced with "... one's clothes", but then 'everybody' should be changed to 'everyone'. Meh.)

But perhaps you insist that "he" is gender-neutral. What about "At the funeral, everyone was dressed to the nines, each wearing his nicest dress or swankest tie." or "Is it your brother or your sister who can hold his breath for four minutes?" Are you so sure now that he/his is gender neutral? (And using "one's" for the second case certainly doesn't work.)

I'll quote from "Motivated Grammar": You don’t have to use singular they yourself. You can go ahead and re-work your sentences to avoid it. You can employ he or she, or s/he, or a made-up gender-neutral pronoun of your own devising like xe. You can even just stubbornly plow on, using he as a gender-neutral pronoun until you grow tired of people pointing out that it isn’t really. I don’t care, and you’re not grammatically wrong. But you’re just making a fool of yourself when you go around telling users of singular they that they’re wrong, because they’re not.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Language is a living, changing thing. "They" has become a preferred gender-neutral singular pronoun because, quite frankly, everyone understands it...and if it is understood, then what's the issue? We write to be understood. If we're going to be sticklers for pronoun use why not complain about "you" as well...after all, the singular second person is "thou" ("you" is plural). Language changes. Change with it.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
As a writer and lecturer I'm often confused about this :
One, why is they a problem, but nobody campaigns for a return to thou , thy, thee and thine
Two, English is not French there is no L'Académie française equivalent. "Rules" are just opinions. The benefit of English is that it is free to evolve.

Some quotes:
Do not argue with an idiot they drag you down to their level and beat you with experience- Mark Twain
God send every one their heart's desire!- Shakespeare
Every body began to have their vexation - Jane Austen
Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes - Oscar Wilde
Every fool can do as they're bid - J. Swift,
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Using "he" as the pronoun has several centuries of custom to back it up. Using "she" as the pronoun sounds forced or specific to the female gender. It sounds more exclusive than "he", but that's rationalized by the idea that it's okay to exclude men.
Every time I read "she", I think "she". Every time I read "he", it is more inclusive.
Alternating between "he" and "she" rarely works well - too often, it sounds tedious, and makes one wonder if the writer managed to get that 50% equality they seem to be striving for.

I like the idea of "he or she", or simply, "they". "They" is the most inclusive. Note I used it above, and it seemed perfectly natural, yes?
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
Before "He" became the de facto gender neutral pronoun, "They" actually was used as a gender-neutral singular. Consequently, I have no problem throwing my weight behind "they" as an approved gender-neutral singular pronoun.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
You say that "gender inclusive English was pounded into me" - you should pound right back. Expression is not about socio-political ideology, it's about beauty, accuracy and effectiveness. 'Language engineers' in educational instituions and media should be challenged and resisted. They are the people who think Orwell's "1984" is an operations manual. They are seriously bad people with bad intentions.
Abusive comment hidden. (Show it anyway.)
  1 reply
Login to comment.
Click here to access all of this post's 36 comments

Email This Post to a Friend
"Should We Stop Using the Singular "They"?"

Separate multiple emails with a comma. Limit 5.


Success! Your email has been sent!

close window

This website uses cookies.

This website uses cookies to improve user experience. By using this website you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

I agree
Learn More