He, She, and They

By Stephanie Franklin

While you might expect me to opine right now about U.S. politics or Harvard policies, today I do not take issue with Congress or with the Harvard administration. Rather, I take issue with the English language. For a brief moment, I’d like to shift the focus away from arguments that are pro-war, pro-choice, pro-Obama, or pro-guns, and address another important issue: pro-nouns.

The English language lacks a proper third-person singular gender-neutral pronoun that can be used to describe a person. By that mess of grammatical jargon, I mean that there is no word that functions as a gender-neutral alternative to the words “he” and “she.” It is my firm belief that the word “they” should serve this function.

Often, a writer will reach a grammatical road-block when…the writer…reaches a point in a sentence in which…the writer… has to use a pronoun to identify an individual whose gender is not specified.

Had I just now replaced “the writer” with “they,” my sentence would have read far more smoothly. Yet had I done that, my editors might have accused me of being grammatically incorrect. But sentences such as, “If a student misbehaves, they should be punished,” flow naturally and are easily understood. The general consensus that such sentences are grammatically incorrect is misguided and unnecessary. Because no better alternative exists, we should come to accept such usage of the word “they” as correct.

The other options available to fill this grammatical void are far worse. Using only the word he (“If a student misbehaves, he should be punished”) shows gender bias. Using only the word she (“If a student misbehaves, she should be punished”) is overcompensation that still shows favoritism toward one gender. Using “s/he” or “he or she” is wordy and unnatural, especially if used frequently or spoken out loud. Some writers instead choose to alternate between he and she (“If a student misbehaves, he should be punished. Or, she should apologize.”) Yet this can be confusing, as it sounds like a writer referring to one person is actually referring to two. Blogger GrammarGirl appropriately refers to this practice as “whiplash grammar.”

Others have turned to inventing their own pronouns. Students at Wesleyan University, for example, have pushed for the inclusion of the word “ze” as a gender-neutral pronoun that students may choose to identify themselves with. Other alternatives include “han,” “thon,” and “co.” Yet these words won’t and haven’t caught on universally, and sound awkward. There is no reason to artificially invent a new word when an existing word is already used frequently in casual conversation.

As of right now, the Chicago Manual of Style recognizes the singular “they” as common in casual contexts, but not in formal writing. Instead, the manual offers a list of ways to rephrase sentences in order to avoid the need for a singular pronoun. This is another ineffective solution. The fact that writers must rework sentences, often in unnatural ways, in order to avoid the need for a word that doesn’t exist is further proof that English requires such a word.

The need to find a proper gender-neutral pronoun is also important because of the growing recognition that some people’s preferred gender pronouns are not simply “he” and “she.” In fact, some people who identify outside the male-female gender binary choose the word “they” as their PGP.

Yet independent of PGPs, the singular use of “they” should be allowed for the sake of grammar alone. Grammatical rules should exist to make language easier to understand. The singular use of “they” is common in casual conversation and makes sentences both easier to construct and more concise. Thus, insistence that we continue to consider it grammatically incorrect is arbitrary insistence on an illogical rule.

I’m not arguing that we should fail to adhere to this rule while it exists, but rather that the rule itself should not exist. Some writers can choose to use the singular “they” in less formal contexts where they have that sort of discretion. For the time being, though, when writing academic papers I will continue to artificially pluralize my sentences or limit my usage of pronouns in order to adhere to the current consensus against the singular “they.” Yet I also hope that eventually, such a consensus will disappear, and that style and grammar manuals will subsequently accommodate the change.

Originally published in the Crimson

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