Teachers at Work

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The Pronoun Problem

It's an age-old quandary: what to do about the lack of a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun in English? Writing teacher Margaret Hundley Parker tackles this grammatical stumbling block, drawing on her experience in the college classroom — on both sides of the pedagogical divide.

When I was in college, way back in the early '90s, I used the feminine pronoun in my essays and got the red-pen treatment. Professors scratched out the s in my she and helped create a budding Riot Grrrl. The problem is that although we have gender-neutral words like person, somebody, everyone, and no one, there's no gender-neutral third person singular pronoun to go with them. The tradition, of course, has been to use the masculine: A person should drape himself in gold lamé for every sunset.

Now I'm on the other side of the red pen, and although my freshmen college writing students still come to class using mostly the masculine pronoun, the feminine is also widely accepted. In fact, many books about usage have sections on non-sexist language, with advice on how to avoid sounding like we're writing to and about only guys. We've come a long way, baby, but in our efforts to clear out the old men from the language, we've created some new messes.

He or She?

My favorite way to begin a discussion on pronouns with a college class is an exercise where students finish sentences such as, "After a hard day on the job, the secretary _____," and "When the plumber arrived at my house ______." I tell them not to think too hard. There is no right answer; the point is to reveal their gender assumptions through their pronoun choices. The secretary's usually a she (as are the nurse and teacher), and the plumber is a he (as are the construction worker, basketball player, and the President). Sometimes the kids get hip to my game and find a way to avoid using gender-revealing pronouns: "After a hard day on the job, the secretary poured a glass of wine." Or "When the plumber arrived at my house, the basement was overflowing."

Getting rid of the pronoun altogether is the best solution, but it's not always practical. Take this sentence: "The student will be accountable for ____ actions." Should it be his or her actions? Cumbersome. Their actions? No good unless you make student plural (see below). What about alternating masculine and feminine pronouns throughout an essay to keep it equal? Confusing.

My vote is to pick one and stick with it throughout the piece. Of course sometimes the audience determines which to use — no need for the masculine pronoun in an article for pregnant women, nor should one use the feminine pronoun in a note, say, to a men's soccer team.

He or She = They

When someone doesn't want to reveal the gender of another person, she (!) might say, "A friend of mine is coming over, and they should be here soon." Coy. That's not the only time they steps into the singular pronoun's shoes. They is becoming more accepted as a she/he alternative even though it sounds odd because it's a plural pronoun referring to one person.

One day I was happily teaching my class about how some indefinite pronouns — anybody, everybody, everyone, somebody, each, no one, nobody — are singular. I was using examples from Donald Hall and Sven Birkerts' Writing Well (not in my usual arsenal), such as "Everyone carried ___ tennis racket." Everyone is a singular indefinite pronoun and requires a his or her tennis racket. The best way around that is not to use a pronoun: "Everyone carried a tennis racket." The point being you shouldn't say, "Everyone carried their tennis racket." "But their sounds right!" my students exclaimed. As I always do in times of strife, I turned to Bryan Garner's Modern American Usage. And I hate to say it, but my students were on to something. Garner supports the use of they with everyone, and admits "they has increasingly moved towards singular senses. Disturbing though these developments may be to purists, they're irreversible. And nothing that a grammarian says will change them."

So I let my students have their way with they, as long as in the example — Everyone carried their tennis racket — they make the rackets plural, too, so at least it doesn't sound like a mob of tennis players clutching a single racket. In the case of "The student will be accountable for their actions," the answer here is to make students plural, which is another good solution in general: pluralize the antecedent so they pleases everyone.

The Pronoun Revolution

Sometimes he doesn't fit, she doesn't fit, and they just doesn't make sense. An interesting solution comes from transgender students on college campuses who use new pronouns to solve the gender problem.

I first read about this a few years ago in an article in the New York Times (March 7, 2004). One student on the transgender hall at Wesleyan who is biologically female but looks androgynous, lives with a male student who "uses pronouns that have evolved in the transgender community: 'ze' instead of 'he' or 'she'; 'hir' instead of 'him' or 'her.'"

Although this was my introduction to the new pronouns, evidently they've been around for years. Upon further reading (thanks, Internet!) I discovered that the discussion about gender pronouns hardly started at Wesleyan. In fact, there used to be a singular third person pronoun — a, not the article but a blend of Middle English's he and she — but it fell out of favor because people wanted to know the gender. So much for progress. For more on gender pronoun history, go here.  More recently, the Twin Oaks community that started in 1967 has about a hundred people using co as a gender-neutral pronoun in place of hers or his. Check them out here.

The problem with these nonstandard gender-neutral pronouns is that the writer has to explain them, and that draws attention from the content. The trick is to find a way to keep the writing smooth, and unless you're writing about gender issues or sexism, keep the focus off the pronouns. The solution is to avoid those singular third person pronouns entirely if possible, the next best thing is to choose he or she, and finally when all else fails use they sparingly.

Margaret Hundley Parker's work has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Time Out New York, Oxygen.com, Bust and performed at the North Carolina Literary Festival, CBGBs, and the 24-Hour Plays, to name a few. She has been an editor at FIT magazine and Road & Travel. Her book, the KISS Guide to Fitness, was published in 2002 by Dorling Kindersley. She has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches writing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Pratt Institute, and through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative.

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Comments from our users:

Monday April 13th 2009, 11:53 AM
Comment by: Charles B. (Jackson, GA)
I started using 's/he' in the nominative case several years ago. It probably distracted from the narrative flow, but any alternative does. Whenever possible, eliminating the need for a third person pronoun is my first choice.
Monday April 13th 2009, 2:08 PM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
This is a problem I've thought deeply about in the past. I've come to the conclusion that none of the invented pronouns do the job, rarely do changes in common language come from the highly educated (much to the chagrin of Bernard Shaw). People will always use the term that feels most natural to them and invented terms or revived dead ones rarely feel natural. The fact that the first link reveals more than eighty attempts at gender neutral pronouns is testament to this point.

In this case it is using they and their as singular that is most natural. I've been doing this for years now, to the point where I automatically inserted 'they' as the next work in the sentence blanks at the beginning of the article. I'm never misunderstood and it feels natural.

Furthermore their is a precedent for turning a personal plural term into a singular one. The precedent is the second person plural 'you' replacing thee/thou as the second person singular.

I must admit that I often grit my teeth at the passing of thee/thou. I'm terrible at remembering names and I often wish to distinguish between addressing a member of a group and the group as a whole. The singular you is troublesome in this situation. Despite the fact thee/thou has been a dead usage for more than a hundred years, using they/their instead of he/she has posed far fewer problems for me. The plurality of the other words in the sentence usually makes it clear whether a single person or multiple people is being referred to – as in the racquet example given in the article.

Swapping between he and she is jarring and choosing one or the other usually reinforces our stereotypes. Writing something like 's/he' is fine until you have to pronounce it. Using they/their is the course common language is taking, the sooner this language is embraced, the more help grammarians can be in breaking down gender stereotypes. I know many people lament the passing of the specificity of much of our language, I'm usually one of them, but in this case I feel it is a small price to pay.

Finally a request: Can we have a follow up piece on the disappearance, or changing nature of words like heroine, murderess, actress and barber from our vocabulary and the effect that is having?
Monday April 13th 2009, 2:08 PM
Comment by: Dennis S. (Bakersfield, CA)
In German "sie" means both neutral and feminine. Why can't "he" be both neutral and masculine in English??
Monday April 13th 2009, 2:11 PM
Comment by: Dennis S. (Bakersfield, CA)
Why didn't we just stick with using "he"??
Monday April 13th 2009, 2:16 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Daniel C.: Check out this Language Lounge from 2005 for discussion of English nouns with feminine endings and how they've changed or disappeared.
Monday April 13th 2009, 2:32 PM
Comment by: Marian C. (Murphys, CA)
This issue has had me in a quandary for about three decades. It is some comfort knowing that even the word masters haven't come up with an answer that works.

If, indeed, the German language has a unisex pronoun "sie" is there some reason we can't blend that into our English language comfortably? One short word allowing a solution seems obvious. Our language has so many words that we have borrowed from others, what's one more?
Monday April 13th 2009, 2:59 PM
Comment by: Manuela F. (Washington, DC)
I'm a girl, and I always use the "he" form. It's never bothered me, frankly I don't know why so many people get so worked up about it. I can understand trying to break down stereotypes, but we end up focusing so much on the pronouns that we ignore content. Most times when I encounter "she" in my reading I am made painfully aware that the writer is deliberately trying to avoid sexist language, and that in itself becomes a distraction. Switching between "he" and "she" is even worse.

Of course, we could always use "it" if we don't mind dehumanizing ourselves a little. "The worker spent its paycheck on groceries." Maybe that leaves something to be desired, but we all know we're talking about a human, and we don't need to know if the worker is male, female, bisexual, transgender, or whatever. So why not just use "it" as the neutral pronoun -- it already exists!

I agree with Daniel C. -- top-down approaches to implementing neutral pronouns don't work, usually because the terms that academics come up with are cludges. The "ze" and "hir" just sound un-English to me, and I don't expect to hear them too soon in everyday speech. I expect the use of "they" is eventually going to become the new third-person singular pronoun. It already exists, it sounds English, and it reasonable to assume that people will be able to tell from context whether one person or several people are meant by the writer (or speaker).
Monday April 13th 2009, 3:00 PM
Comment by: Susan B.
Anonymous asks "why can't 'he' be both neutral and masculine in English?" Well, because it's not neutral, it's masculine. Dennis wonders "why didn't we just stick with using 'he'?" Because I am a 'she' and you are a 'he'. I don't care to be labeled with the wrong pronoun, do you?

IMO, this is an incredibly charged topic and as I've spent my morning and early afternoon writing about issues facing disenfranchised people; I'm surprised I've managed to be restrained here. My paid, politically correct work for the day is done.
Monday April 13th 2009, 3:47 PM
Comment by: David M. (Surprise, AZ)
Nice write.

I thought you, being a woman, were going to offer up a feminist call to action. Somehow, my assumption, although wrong, fit well within the context of your article.
Monday April 13th 2009, 6:39 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Use Ze! and Hir,as a transgender person its so helpful and respectful instead of stuttering from he to she, and it also helps break down the gender binary system showing theres more than 2 choices in gender its very complicated but if you have questions get at me nicole_a_cardona@yahoo.com
Monday April 13th 2009, 7:21 PM
Comment by: Ann L.
Ursula LeGuin explored these issues years ago in The Dispossessed (no possessive pronouns) and Left Hand of Darkness (bi-gendered people). I recommend both.

I survived the pronoun wars of the nineties and am happy to report that the issue is largely dead in business writing. We learned to use the plural and to restructure the sentence to avoid personal pronouns. The resistance from older men to losing "he" for "he and she" was amusing, energetic, and a little pathetic. "Get over it, guys," we said, and they did.
Monday April 13th 2009, 9:02 PM
Comment by: ANDRE O. (LISMORE HEIGHTS Australia)
HE or SHE? The answer, if you are a Christian, is in the bible : "God created man male and female." I do not know how well this will sit with Christian feminists or with non-Christians.In my opinion, too much political correctness can patronise the disenfranchised rather than enhance their status.
Wednesday April 15th 2009, 7:59 PM
Comment by: R K Sethi (Calgary Canada)
I enjoyed reading this submission. It made me think about how treacherous writing can be and how easy it is to continue making gender biased discrepancies when communicating. Thank you, MHP. Nice work.
Friday April 17th 2009, 12:49 PM
Comment by: Richard H.
What ever happened to Multi-Culturalism? Most of western culture uses "He" when the sex is unknown.

Cultural-Supremacists will always be offended by the mores of the "Other".

Unless writing exclusively for a "Sex Obsessive" audience, I'd recommend not worrying about it and use He or She where appropriate.

Where no offense is intended, any offense is only in the mind of the obsessively offended.
Saturday April 18th 2009, 6:05 PM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Anon: it's not about offence being taken. It's about a convention of language reinforcing a societal expectation – a gender schema. We don't always use 'he' as the default; you wouldn't use 'he' for referring to an anonymous nurse. We assume nurses are female. We assume engineers are male; we shouldn't. The language we use reflects our assumption and reinforces those gender roles in the minds of the young in particular and society in general. You might think this is a small thing but all of these small things add up to make a big thing.
Sunday April 19th 2009, 3:22 PM
Comment by: Dennis S. (Bakersfield, CA)
Daniel makes a good point about social expectations. However, if "he" is just excepted as both neutral AND masculine, as other languages do for the feminine pronoun I believe, we would eliminate most of the problem.

You can't just make up a word either and expect it to come into use either. The English language is a living language with it's own life, which is why it's so awesome.
Monday April 20th 2009, 12:03 AM
Comment by: Clarence W.
A conventional writer must weigh potential of offense when she chooses gender neutral pronouns. A progressive writer risks distraction when he chooses to break with convention. Both must realize they will be criticized with whichever method they choose.

Perhaps it would be wise to use whichever convention prevents the message getting lost with a particular audience. Assuming that can be reliably determined.
Monday April 20th 2009, 1:34 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
If I hadn't just read "The Pronoun Problem", I probably wouldn't have been distracted by the following. That wasn't a derogatory complaint by the way. Am I just paranoid?

From "The Paranoid In and Out of Prison" (Palermo & Scott p.58): "They (voices) are a defense against his fears of losing autonomy, his sense of impending castration, his capacity to fend off the imaginary enemies around himself, and his recognition of being rejected,...."

Now that presents a pronoun problem. Certainly the authors don't mean that only men are inflicted by delusional voices. So, if they choose to use the feminine pronoun, would they have had to replace castration with ooectomy? How would they have made their point with "they"?

Additionally, the authors were quite willing to try different pronouns. In the paragraph preceding the one quoted above the authors used "one's". In the paragraph following the quote the authors used "person" in the one sentence and "they" in the next sentence.
Tuesday April 21st 2009, 12:32 PM
Comment by: Paul S. (Boulder Creek, CA)
I'm a little old man who is not a writer by trade, but I do have to publish written articles. I do have an observation.

It appears that we have five choices now that "he" is no longer acceptable:

1. s/he - This served its purpose but is currently too cumbersome to be acceptable.
2. alternating she/he - Nobody seems to support this as it is confusing and contrived.
3. sie - This is both neutral and feminine. That would replace one discrimination with another.
4. ze and hir - Mandating new words is an uphill battle. Perhaps we could have a Reality TV Show where all the possible submission for this category are put to the test. "Who Wants to be the Third Person Singular?" I don't see it happening.
5. they/their/them - The only problem with "they" seems to come from the people who write style books but aren't they the same guys (?) who tell us that "he" is the correct form of the third person singular neutral?

I think that I'm going to try to avoid genderized neutral pronouns where possible. Beyond that I will sacrifice number for gender. I will use they/their/them as singular and hope like hell that my readers don't visualize a large group picking up one tennis racket or picking one nose.

I can also choose anecdotes that are gender-specific in a balanced manner, half masculine and half feminine, so that I can further avoid the ambiguity caused by they/their/them.

It may be a band aid, but it seems to be all I have right now.
Tuesday April 21st 2009, 3:55 PM
Comment by: Margaret P. (Brooklyn, NY)
Ha--now that’s a reality show I’d watch “Who Wants to be the Third Person Singular?” It’s funny about this pronoun business, that once you start noticing it, it can be distracting. In the best writing, it’s not. When I was working on this article I wanted to use examples of the feminine pronoun from the New Yorker (that hub of cutting-edge copy editing) because I could’ve sworn I’d seen David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, and David Sedaris use it there but when I looked I could not find it. I couldn’t find the masculine, either. They seem to find ways around it every time (or at least in the issues I thumbed through in a panic). And now about that reality show…
Tuesday April 21st 2009, 5:59 PM
Comment by: Daniel C. (Leicester United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Clarence W: Castration can actually mean removal of the testes or ovaries! In that passage the author seems to be indicating the subject fears a loss of power, in which case ...impending impotence... would probably have been better anyway.
Wednesday April 22nd 2009, 12:31 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Daniel C.: You are spot on concerning the authors use being psychologically neutral. The American Heritage Medical Dictionary suggests a definition of castration as a psychological disorder that is manifested in the female as the fantasized loss of the penis or in the male as fear of its actual loss.

Concerning physical castration, a few Google glances suggest ooectomy is a common lay person's term for removal of the ovaries, while oophorectomy is the proper medical term.
Friday April 24th 2009, 1:18 PM
Comment by: Erik H. (Missoula, MT)
I've come to the conclusion it won't be the end of civilization if we allow inertia to take its course toward a gender-neutral and singular/plural 'they'. Let the inevitable happen. No one's going to win the battle of s/he, alternate she and he, and similarly contrived schemes. Like it has been said here: "Sie"/"sie" can be all of these forms and hasn't hindered the German language.
Friday April 24th 2009, 3:37 PM
Comment by: Clarence W.
Erik H.: German isn't hindered by blurred gender lines at definite articles (der, die, das)either. Masculine apples and feminine time come to mind.
Thursday June 4th 2009, 5:11 AM
Comment by: SheDK (Falls Church, VA)
I have recently begun freelance writing in a variety of forums. Previously most of my writing has been business or technical writing requiring limited use of "personal" singular pronouns, and more reliance on gender-neutral/plural pronouns. In my professional writing in the business realm, I have found virtually no resistance to using "they" as a generic/impersonal pronoun. In writing as a profession, this dilemma has resurfaced insistently amongst the experts telling me how to be a professional writer.

In my experience as an avid reader, I judge the written word according to how well the content is communicated, not whether authors use s/he or they according to old world rules. The content of the piece and talent of the writer makes this a non-issue when writing is a means to an end, rather than the end itself.

I have never been confused by use of “they” as an impersonal singular pronoun (despite the squiggly line sometimes imposed by automated grammar-checking tools). Without regard to my own gender, I am distracted by he/she (and other s/he combinations) used interchangeably or indiscriminately. I would much rather "push" the meaning of they/them/their to be a generic/impersonal, singular/plural pronoun that does not refer to a distinct person of either gender.

This debate reminds me of an Asian friend who almost exclusively uses "he" when referring to a female or uses the singular pronouns "he" and "she" interchangeably when speaking in reference to a particular person. In many settings, people visibly cringe at my friend's grammatical error. I am not an expert on native Chinese grammar, however clearly the use of personal pronouns does not come natural to my friend, certainly not due to a lack of understanding of the difference. Yes, it is not natural in speech or in writing when singular pronouns are mixed and matched interchangeably.

I'm so happy to have found this forum to vent recent frustrations with insistence upon using singular pronouns indiscriminately. It's great to find a community in which I can openly support such a radical evolution in our living language.
Tuesday March 9th 2010, 6:29 PM
Comment by: Kristyn B. (Ventura, CA)
We already use he as gender neutral and as a masculine. It does double duty. The issue is whether or not they can do double duty too. Unless we come up with an entirely new pronoun, and it doesn't seem likely that something like that could catch on overnight, then we are left with an existing pronoun needing to do two jobs. If people are so concerned with gender equality, then it might as well be they doing double duty as he. They both sound correct, are widely used and easily understood by native speakers.
Tuesday April 6th 2010, 5:42 AM
Comment by: Meta4 (UT)
The "native" English I learned as child in Utah almost exclusively used they as singular and plural, and no one ever seemed to be confused. In my high school honor English classes in the early 1990's, "he" was strictly enforced. As an English major in college, most of my professors favored "he" even as we all longed for something to make it clear who was biased and who was not. I have, for as long as I can remember, tried to use "one" or "one's" whenever possible as they are clearly both single and neutral. When "one/one's" won't do, or when I lapse into a moment of distraction, "he" tends to surface more as the tone becomes more formal. Conversely, "they" takes over when things are informal.

Regarding, "ze" and "hir", as a gay man with many intersexed and transgendered friends, I don't believe they are suitable for use as neutral pronouns. Please educated me if I am wrong, but as I see it, a "neutral" pronoun is one used when the gender of the antecedent is unknown or unimportant. In contrast, when refering to a transgendered person, gender may be indeterminate to the speaker/writer, but it is far from unimportant. In the sentence, "When the plumber arrives, ___ will fix the sink," the pronoun could be either "he" or "she". We assume that the plumber is "EITHER male OR female." However, if the plumber is transgendered or intersexed the Boolean operators could be but are not limited to: the plumber could be "BOTH male AND female" or "NEITHER male NOR female." My point is that transgendered individuals do have a gender. It is just that hir gender does not fit within the confines of the narrowly defined poles of the male/female situation. Ze has a gender, it's just not masculine or feminine. It's complicated.

Basically I'm saying that while finding a neutral third person pronoun is a great thing for both practical reasons and for reducing the use and thus influence of bias language, but it hardly goes far enough.

Language and society show an overwhelming bias in the belief that male/female are the only options for people to be, but transgendered people demonstrate that masculine and feminine are at best vague descriptive terms. (Don't get me going on the difference between "sex" and "gender" either. LOL)

There are other options, and to completely deal with gender bias, English will have to borrow, develop, or spontaneously create pronouns for "neutral" and, perhaps several, "trans" genders. I'm sure that this seems to complicate the issue to the point of absurdity, but I think that all those little pronouns, which everyone barely notices as they skim along, are far more important than most people can imagine. After all, prounouns represent us when we can't represent ourselves. So it's resonable to ask, if there isn't a pronoun there for you, who will see you at all? Ultimately, people's awareness of the issue will guide the mechanism of language to establish clear neutral and transgendered third-person pronouns. It looks like "they" is winning the popular vote on the first count. The time will eventually come for the latter as well.

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