Rejecting “He or She” for Gender-Neutral “They”

By Katie Sheridan

Many colleges include evolutionary psychology in their curriculum, but what about evolutionary grammar? This week I stumbled across an article about using “they” instead of “he or she” when the subject’s gender is unknown. I was resistant to the notion until I read what the bloggers Leslie Ayres and Grammar Girl had to say.

Ayres is a job recruiter who frequently works with resumes that don’t disclose the writer’s gender. Many times she is stuck awkwardly writing “he or she.” So in one of her blogs she used “they” after a singular antecedent.

Though Grammar Girl is an advocate for proper usage, she knows the realities of English. Photo by Sha Supangan via Freak Out!

She wrote multiple sentences that broke the singular antecedent agreement rule, including, “And then there was the reader who shared about the tattoo they saw in a movie: Born Too Loose. Her perceived mistake caused an uprising among commenters.

One anonymous reader published this comment: “Ignorance of an important fact does no[t] give you license to pluralize the pronoun when the noun it refers to is singular.” (And yes, I suspect this reader failed to revise his or her snappy comment before posting it. Ironic.)

Ayres decided to explain her purposeful use of “they” in her next post, urging people to start a revolution by dubbing “they” the new gender-neutral pronoun. She and Grammar Girl point out the irritations avoiding the gender-neutral “they” contains. They say it is cumbersome and awkward to say “he or she” for every pronoun in a gender-neutral sentence; remodeling the sentence to be plural doesn’t always work; and using “they” avoids the sexism of assuming the subject is one gender over the other.

I love grammar. My fondness for the rules that create consistent communication makes me loath to change them. But after taking The History of the English Language class, I have resigned myself to the fact that language must grow and evolve. In the History of English, I learned how English transformed from one phase to the next. The textbook for this class was Elly Van Gelderen’s A History of the English Language that detailed the changes that English was still experiencing.

The book explained that Old English was a synthetic language based on conjugations. Old English evolved into an analytic language with grammatical aspects like auxiliaries and prepositions. Van Gelderen explained that language does not stop because it has reached the analytic phase; linguists predict that English will continue to cycle between synthetic and analytic phases. The synthetic qualities of English are again appearing.

While style guides and academia hold academic and media writing stable, colloquial English is changing and taking the entire language along with it. Grammar Girl even mentions that the Dictionary of the English Language and Fowler’s Modern English Usage style guides have already made this use of “they” acceptable. The well-known dictionaries Webster’s Third New International Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary also include this rule.

And so, fellow grammar enthusiasts, I must concede that I would support this change to style guides. But until a majority of credible sources begin to use this rule, I will stick to “he or she.”

I know many of us in Print Media Editing are strict about grammar, but would you support this change? What are your reactions to the theory that our language is always changing? Do you believe it can ever stay the same? Would it be a positive or negative occurrence if grammar/language never changed?

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12 responses to “Rejecting “He or She” for Gender-Neutral “They”

  1. This is a very interesting question. Personally, I agree that grammar needs to evolve. We are constantly changing the way we communicate with each other, whether it be through social media or even in our lingo. Sometimes substitution or change is the way to go, and in this case I think it is. Using “they” instead of “him or her” makes the entire text easier to swallow, and allows the reader to feel comfortable instead of formal. Although some may disagree because of original grammar rules, others will most likely agree that using “they” makes it easier for everyone.

    • I think you’re right about using “they” being easier. I think a lot of people struggle with grammar. Yes, we could make all of the rules easier by changing usage to what we use colloquially, but I think this is one change for the simple that would have multiple positive outcomes.

  2. Very interesting. This reminds me of what we have talked about in class and how so many grammatical errors go unnoticed because we’re used to hearing them misused. Great sources and outlets for finding this information!

  3. I completely agree about using improper grammar because that is what we’re exposed to so often. If I answered a phone, I would have to take a second before stating, “This is she” because it doesn’t come naturally. I think that’s a good thing to point out: maybe a majority of our mistakes come from the things we are exposed to more often (i.e. colloquial language).I wonder if we would have better grammar skills if we read more than we spoke.

    • This can be said for any language, not just English. In this age, we are constantly in a hurry. Our speech is rapid and often abbreviated. Consequently, so is our writing. I agree with Katie; we would have better grammar skills if we just slowed down.

      • So much to say, yet so little time. Good point, Marina. I wonder how language will change over the next 15 years, aside from moving through its analytic-synthetic cycle.

  4. Like you mentioned, Katie, so much has changed about the English language. We used to speak in “thous” and “thines,” but we’ve since dropped that practice. And while I do like my grammar, I have always hated phrases like “his or her,” or “one’s home.” They sound pretentious and awkward, and more people forget these rules than remember them. (I have to wonder whether the first person who stopped using “thou” and “thine” thought the same thing about his Elizabethan english-speaking compatriots.)

    I think our language would benefit more from being standardized (i.e. using “they,”) than it would from a handful of people sticking to archaic rules.

    • I love your sentence about the first person to do away with “thou” and “thine” in the Elizabethan era. It gave me a funny mental picture. Also, I think establishing grammar rules is a tough balance. All grammarians don’t even agree about grammar rules, so how do we decide whose rules to stick with in the academic arena?

  5. I think it is fascinating to consider how languages evolve. I worry about changing grammar rules, especially a rule such as pronoun/noun agreement because of the confusion it may cause. However, it will all come down to how people use language in everyday conversation. It is this use that will determine if a grammar rule changes.

  6. Going off what Lillie said, I think that there’s a difference between how we speak and how we write. As much as it pains me to admit, I sometimes end my sentences in prepositions in conversation. Very few people talk how they write. However, when it comes to writing, we need to be careful and correct–especially as journalists. I realize that noun/pronoun agreement can sound awkward sometimes, but if you can’t reword the sentence, you should make it wrong by changing it, as in this case with “he or she” and “they.” Of course English is ever-changig, but if we start changing its most basic tenets, our language will only go downhill.

  7. As someone that is going to be an ESL teacher, I am torn on this issue. Although I feel that getting rid of the “he or she” would be great, English already has enough “exceptions” to rules in grammar that one more does not need to be created.

  8. I think it’s misleading to talk about language evolving, when discussing the singular they. It’s been a feature of English since at least Chaucer. It’s found in the works of most of the writers that are considered “great” in English literature. The rule that it is wrong is one imposed by style theorists, an attempt at forced evolution that has failed, because it’s continued in both speech and literary writing, for centuries, down to the present day.

    There was a brief period of time, from the late 19th to mid-20th century, when the ascendant view was that it’s wrong in standard written English. Changing values, especially towards gender-inclusive language, have enabled recent writers to discard this artificial rule and use language that comes natural to almost all speakers of the English language, as well as to past generations of literary writers.

    Standard written English is an artificial hodgepodge of a language anyway. It’s a set of conventions dating to many different eras of English, combined with rules invented by usage writers. At no point in history did anyone speak English that comes very close to SWE.

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