Grammar Gripes: Using "They" Instead of "He or She"

This isn't a gripe about "Why on Earth do people do this nonsense?" It's more of a gripe about "Why on Earth doesn't everyone do this? It's nonsense!" I consider myself a feminist, being fully supportive of equal rights, opportunity, and freedom of choice for all genders. 

Can we please get our acts together and adopt using "they," "them," and "their" already?

First, I'll examine how this construction isn't really grammatically correct. That shouldn't necessarily matter considering how often we butcher grammar in speech and writing without consequence. I have yet to be smitten by grammar gods for improper subject-verb agreement during a fart joke. Compare these three:

A server should treat his or her tables like long-lost best friends and long-lost friends gave tips.

Servers should treat their tables like long-lost best friend and long lost friends gave tips.

A server should treat their tables like long-lost best friends and long-lost friends gave tips.

Clearly, the first example is a little stiff. The two "A or B" constructions in a single sentence are awkward, though forgivable. The second example is serviceable, and likely to be the best answer when trying to appease a grammatically rigid audience. If you're at all like me, though, you may have looked over the third wondering when the error will occur. I skim over these sentences with nary a care in the world whenever I'm proofreading. Unfortunately, this sentence gives some people conniptions. "Their" is a plural possessive adjective, and using it to refer to the singular "server" puts some grammarians into academic shock.

Changing the antecedent (I had to look "antecedent" up to make sure I was using it correctly) to a plural does fix the problem in some cases, in others it is an inelegant solution. Consider the following:

A person is only as good as his or her word; my words are mostly four letters long.

People are only as good as their words; my words are mostly four letters long.

A person is only as good as their word; my words are mostly four letters long.

Again, the first is stiff and overly formal. The second is fine, but not stellar. Only the third seems to have the right cadence. 

Now it's time to set aside the technical issues for more philosophical ones. I've always professed to be a descriptivist grammarian over prescriptivist, and I'll follow the times. Sometimes I'll kick and scream as I do it, but I'll definitely go with the consensus. I don't have any philosophical issue with the grammar. My issue with not using "their" is that the English language is sexist.

Not so very long ago, it was grammatically correct to refer to all humans as "he" or "him" if gender wasn't known. I tried to find a quote to illustrate this phenomenon, but they all illustrate this phenomenon. Any quote before the last few decades refers to "a man" and "he," even if it otherwise uses the indefinite "one." As just a dude, it doesn't really bother me all that much. As person with some sense of justice, it bothers me a whole lot.

So does "he or she."

"He or she" as a catch-all still annoys me because it puts the male pronoun first. It's the convention to put the male pronoun first, and that assumption is still pretty sexist.

"She or he" is a step in the right direction, as is replacing the universal "he" with the universal "she," but it's just swinging the inequality the other way. I'm no men's rights activist - we guys have more than enough rights, thank you very much - but I do believe in equality, so simply putting sexist language on the other foot is no solution. I've read some work that suggests an alternative non-gendered pronoun. Ultimately, that's a great idea, but if using the plural pronoun bothers people so, we're probably not ready for a whole new word. Maybe in my lifetime, "ze" and "zem" will become part of our lexicon. Until then, "they" and "them" will have to suffice when necessary.

Therefore, I fully believe that it's perfectly acceptable to use "their" in gender non-specific singular cases. It's more elegant. Most people are perfectly comfortable with it. And if some spectacle-twiddling academic with elbow patches gives you crap about it, tell them to get their act together on my behalf. Let's face it, this little grammar quirk just works.



Daniel Howard is a writer, editor, and educator living in Taipei, Taiwan. He writes fiction, non-fiction, and language learning materials, both for himself and for large publishers. For more on his thoughts about writing, visit his blog at [http://www.danielhowardwriting.com]www.danielhowardwriting.com.