He, She, and They: Pronouns and Gender Politics

If you’ve been studying English for a while, you know that parts of speech such as verbs, nouns, and pronouns are supposed to live in harmony. That means they need to “agree” with each other in a sentence—a rule called parallelism.

photo of train tracks

You don’t need to know the “ism” that denotes the rule. I only bring it up so that you’ll know it is a rule, one that’s essential in both spoken and written English.

But rules are meant to be broken, as the late General Douglas MacArthur famously said. Can you spot the traditional rule I’m breaking in the following sentence?

If a person loses their cell phone on the subway, the best course of action is to get in touch with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

Why should we assume that person is a “he” and say “his” cell phone? For centuries, that’s exactly how we handled gender in speech: We swept everything under the masculine rug. Our excuse? Parallelism. If the subject of a sentence is singular, any pronoun that comes later in the sentence needs to agree with it. And “he” won the contest as the singular pronoun of choice. Women, used to being second-class citizens, didn’t seem to mind being thrown in with men. That’s just the way things were, right?

Indeed it was, until the status of women began to change in the late 1960s, in tandem with other major cultural shifts in the United States and across Europe. Fifty years later, using “he” as a stand-in for diverse people is no long acceptable.

illustrated woman for equality

For a while, in the late 20th century, instead of just he, we used he or she, or even he/she:

When a new patient comes to Dr. Smith’s office, he/she will need to fill out a comprehensive medical history form.

However, this practice is gradually going by the wayside in favor of another pronoun: they.  

What!? Isn’t they the 3rd person plural pronoun?

The answer is yes—but lately, they has been doing double duty as a 3rd person singular pronoun as well. They allows us to avoid the awkwardness of he or she or he/she. No self-respecting speaker of English uses these graceless combination pronouns in speech. And they’re even clumsier in written English.

They also serves a more meaningful purpose: It prevents women from disappearing into he.

The next person in line should have their passport or other picture ID ready.

Inclusive Language

They and their are also favored by members of the transgender and other queer communities that resent being rigidly classified as strictly male or strictly female. Whatever your views on gender and sexuality, these communities are part of our world—and because the United States is still a democracy, everybody gets to participate in the political, cultural, and even linguistic life of their country—at least in theory!

collection of many images of faces

What do you think? Is “they singular” a good idea?

Definitions

Parallelism – the use of components in a sentence that are grammatically the same or similar in their construction, sound, meaning, or meter

Denote – be a sign of; indicate

Stand-in – replacement, substitute, or proxy

Going by the wayside – being discarded, disappearing

Double duty – designed to fill two functions

Clumsy – awkward in movement or manner

Queer – an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities

2 comments (Add your own)

1. Martha wrote:
I've been a copy editor for the past 40-50 years and I am absolutely THRILLED to see you promoting "they" as a singular pronoun. At the behest of in-house publishing overlords, I have spent hours turning otherwise decent prose into horribly awkward constructions involving "he/she," "he or she," or worse, "s/he." I have also had to do the alternate dance, particularly in books about babies and children: Chapter 1, all she's. Chapter 2, all he's. Or *paragraph* 1, he's, *paragraph* 2, she's. It doesn't f%$^ing work! The answer is "they," arrived at completely organically in the spoken language. Now we need to convince the hard-core grammarians.

July 9, 2017 @ 4:29 PM

2. Margaret wrote:
Thanks so much, Martha, for your comment, in which you augment my post with clear, compelling examples of your own! I welcome comments from native speakers of American English, even though my blog is aimed at intermediate-to-advanced ESL learners, and yours was especially helpful.

I agree with you wholeheartedly that with a few exceptions, spoken language should take the lead in matters of grammar and usage. I draw the line at "If I would have known that..." -- but generally, I take my cues from real-world English!

July 10, 2017 @ 3:00 PM

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