A case for “they”

Ed Griffin’s recent post on his blog Writers Write Daily tackled a touchy subject. When referring to a person of unknown gender, should you use he/his or they/their? I, not surprisingly, have my own opinion about this topic that I would like to share with you today. (And, if you take a look at the title of this post, you probably can figure out where I stand. But, I digress.)

Historically, English speakers have used he/his in these scenarios, such as in this sentence:

Who left his Spock doll on my desk?

In this situation, the speaker does not know whether a male or female owns the lost Spock doll. However, the speaker uses his to mean either his or her.

Obviously, as a feminist living in the twenty-first century, this type of language seems sexist and archaic to me. When people use the traditional he/his in these situations, it reads chauvinistic—like it’s okay to use he when the person could be a she because the hes of this world are more important than the shes. (I’ll pause here so all of the women reading this can dry heave.)

But I’m not the only one who feels this way. This is why you may have noticed the trend toward using they/their in situations when you aren’t sure whether you are talking about a man or a woman. Today, you may be more likely to see the above example written like this:

Who left their Spock doll on my desk?

Why we have this he/she conundrum
The main problem is that Modern English does not have a gender-neutral pronoun that speakers could plug in to sentences where they would normally say he or she. However, this was not always the case for our dear English. Middle English did have such a pronoun. Dennis Baron explains this in his book Grammar and Gender:

In 1789, William H. Marshall records the existence of a dialectal English epicene pronoun, singular “ou”: ‘“Ou will’ expresses either he will, she will, or it will.” Marshall traces “ou” to Middle English epicene “a,” used by the 14th century English writer John of Trevisa, and both the OED and Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary confirm the use of “a” for he, she, it, they, and even I. This “a” is a reduced form of the Anglo-Saxon he = “he” and heo = “she.”

A resolution
There are two ways to resolve the lack of a gender-neutral pronoun.

  1. s/he and his/her
  2. they/their

You may have also noticed a rise in s/he and his/her. Using this option, our example sentence would look like this:

Who left his/her Spock doll on my desk?

This is a viable option to avoid the inherent sexism in simply using he. However, use it repeatedly and you may find that it becomes needlessly cumbersome. After a few his/her this and his/her thats, and you’ll likely wish we were still speaking Middle English with its gender-neutral pronoun.

But there’s an easier solution. Just use they/their. It has become widely acceptable as a workaround, and everyone but your most conservative copy editor will let it slide.

One more thing about they
Ed Griffin’s post included this interesting note about they from dictionary.com:

Such use (their) is not a recent development, nor is it a mark of ignorance. 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. Already widespread in the language (though still rejected as ungrammatical by some), this use of they, their,  and them  is increasing in all but the most conservatively edited American English. This increased use is at least partly impelled by the desire to avoid the sexist implications of he as a pronoun of general reference.

See, if you use they, you’ll be in the good company of the likes of Shakespeare and Dickens. As if you needed persuading . . .


6 thoughts on “A case for “they”

  1. There is a Spock doll on my desk. I didn’t put it there.
    A boy was found outside the core. His mother was found inside.
    Did he put the spock doll on the desk? Or did she put it there?

    Is the desk inside/outside the core?

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