Our Girl Friday: Lookin' for that non-sexist, singular pronoun

Posted at 11:00 AM Jul 31, 2009

By Geoff George

If you hated English class, be warned 'cuz we're 'bout to get all linguistic up in here. I'm a bit too self-conscious (and forgetful) to be a grammar snob, but as an aspiring editor, I do enjoy a good debate over the acceptability of dangling participles, the use of serial commas, the use of "since" as a word indicating either chronology or causality, and other lexical and grammatical tiffs that many people would rather chew slowly through their own wrist than engage in.

Another such debate involves proper noun/pronoun/verb agreement. And this week, Patricia T. O'Connor and Stewart Kellerman with New York Times magazine highlight a specific subset of the discussion: the quest for a universal, non-sexist personal pronoun. Apparently folks on Twitter are all abuzz about it, but this is the first I've heard.

The need for a unisex pronoun might not seem necessary. Often, you can get away with making the subject of a sentence plural, or (like this sentence) switching over to second person. Certain phrases, though, such as "To each his own," can't really be said without either a masculine bias or the clunky use of "his or her." "His" could be replaced with "one's," I suppose, but only if you want to sound like a Brit. So, people say, "screw it," and use "they" as a singular pronoun.

The writers of the NYT piece trace the use of "he" for both sexes to one of the first books on English grammar, written in 1745, by Anne Fisher, a woman no less. What's interesting is that Fisher seemed, by all accounts, to be a pretty empowered lady. She ran her own school, printing press, and newspaper. Maybe using "he" never bothered her. Maybe she thought it sounded better. O'Connor and Keller write:

"But alas, in swapping he for they, Fisher replaced a number problem with a gender problem."
Even though, as the writers point out, lots of authors ("Byron, Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, Trollope ... ") have always used "they" as a singular. Personally, I'm torn on this issue, mostly because I've spent my adult life removing "they" as my go-to singular, sexless pronoun, but at the same time using his/her or s/he calls a hell of a lot of attention to the gendered pronoun issue I'm trying to evade.

So, what do you think, dolls? Yay to "they" in the singular, or nay?


Paul said:

Working in IT, I find myself working with people of varied nationalities when I cannot tell whether or not the person is male or female based on their name, and as such, I frequently use they. I figure that using the gender-neutral term would be better than using the incorrect gender.

Sean said:

In speech, I'm a big fan of "they." In writing, it's lazy to do that, and I think you should go for the second-person approach. Though that comes off as lazy too.

There is no good answer! And there hasn't been one for a long time. I think the best we can hope for is someone making a joke meme out of some silly word and having it catch on to the point that it becomes legit.

So, we wait. And while we wait, I throw out "sie."

Lshygirl5 said:

I've always used they as a singular pronoun even though I know that it isn't really grammatically correct. I have a problem with he/she because I try to acknowledge that there are more than two genders. I think that this is an important discussion to have.

Patrick Rennie said:

It is “they.” In real world usage, it’s always been they. Despite all attempts to wipe it out in “proper” writing, the use of they has persisted in the written word during all periods since they made up the “he” rule. So, since it’s what people actually use and have for centuries, they it is.

Sara said:

I have noticed people more and more finding the lack of a gender-neutral singular term troubling. I have always been a proponent of "zie", but until it catches on, a person can easily feel foolish when he/she uses it.

See how much easier that sentence would be if I could just type "a person can easily feel foolish when zie uses it"? :)

Mjx said:

This one always kills, me and I have to work with it a lot, because I'm a copyeditor. On the one hand, 'they' sounds and reads sloppy (and avoid using it myself, unless I can structure the sentence so the plural is appropriate), because it is vague, but there is a lot of historical precedent for its use. 'He or she' is unwieldy, though, and outside of academic/professional documents, it sounds stiff and unnatural. I've noticed that people seem a bit disturbed if I refer to an abstract person as 'it', although it seems logical. 'One' makes the most sense, I think, at least in writing; in speech, it's better not to think too much about it, no point in making yourself crazy, when the main point is to communicate spontaneously.

ryogasasaki said:

i must admit, i always use "they"

on a separate, yet similar, note:
am i the only one who feels horrible using "it" to describe a dog? i feel i turn said dog into some household appliance or something by calling the dog "it"

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