Grammar 4


They: The Gender-Neutral Pronoun


the sex of an animal (whether male or female), based not so much on their physical anatomy but on how they behave or feel inside.

For centuries, it was perfectly acceptable to write a sentence like this one:

Then, in the 1960s, some women began to object. They said, "Why should we assume that the doctor is a man? Can't women be doctors too? The English language is sexist! It discriminates against women!"

In response, many writers started writing sentences like this:

That's okay, but it can result in some awkward paragraphs, like this one:

To avoid such ungainly sentences, some writers decided to simply substitute "she" for "he", like this:

That's a clever way to remind everyone that women can also be doctors. It forces them to question their assumptions.

But it really hasn't solved the problem. The problem is this: In the English language, there is no singular pronoun that is gender neutral. (That is, we're stuck with either "he" or "she", but there is no single word that means "he or she").

So what are we to do?

Some writers had an idea. "Let's invent a new word!" they said, and they came up with variations like these:

But none of those variations caught on, at least not widely.

Finally, some English scholars said, "Look, we already have a solution to this problem: The pronoun "they" may technically be a plural pronoun, but for centuries, people have used it to refer to a single person of unknown gender, like this:

According to the traditional rules of grammar, that sentence in incorrect, because "the thief" is singular, and "they" is plural. (In technical terms, grammarians say that the pronoun does not "agree" with its antecedent). Nonetheless, ordinary people have been saying such sentences for centuries.

And so, these scholars proposed a new idea: Why not make it official? Why not make an official change to the rules of grammar, and simply accept the fact that from now on, "they" can be used to refer to a single person of unknown gender?

And that's exactly what happened. In 2019, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary—(and that's about as official as you can get!)—officially declared that, from now on, "they" and "their" can be used to refer to a single person of unspecified gender, like this:

The Problem with Being Old

When you're old, like me, it's hard to change. All my life, I've been taught that "they" and "their" can only be used to refer to groups of people. It feels very strange to my ear to write a sentence such as this one:

It just feels incorrect.

As I write these lessons, I encounter this problem frequently: Do I refer to "a student" as "he", or "she", or perhaps "he or she"? Or should I go with the newfangled way of doing things, and refer to "him or her" as a "they".

More and more, I force myself to use "they", as wrong as it sounds to my ear. But sometimes, you'll notice, I do revert back to old habits, using "he" or "she" or sometimes "he or she". To my ear, it just sounds more natural.

Sigh . . .

Okay, I'm done complaining. I really am trying to change with the times.

The Advantage of Being Young

For you, I imagine, this isn't much of a problem. Your teachers have probably never insisted that "they" can only be used for groups of people. And sentences like this one probably sound perfectly natural to your ear:

Good for you. You're the new generation. Your views about gender equality are more progressive than those of my generation, and the English language is finally catching up with you. It's official.

Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.