How many times have you written a sentence using a gender-neutral antecedent (the word a pronoun replaces) and stumbled? Which pronoun do you use—he or she?
- The student may borrow whichever book he (or she?) needs.
The Traditional Solution
Until relatively recently, English grammarians asserted you use he as the gender-neutral pronoun with any antecedent.
For example, if you use a non-gender-specific noun like "scientist," "judge," "astronaut," or "engineer," you'd use he as the accompanying pronoun in your sentence. Consider the following:
A judge must bang his gavel to call the court to order.
When an astronaut takes a space walk, he must be tethered first to the spacecraft.
An engineer needs certifications if he wants to get a high-level position in the company.
Not to mention those nouns that have traditionally been associated more with women:
A teacher should always keep an apple on his desk.
When a new nurse arrives at the clinic, he should always check in with reception.
Why it's wrong
This meant that millions of little girls were being subtly conditioned to believe that these were boys' things because of the masculine constructs.
Plus, all those actual female judges, scientists, astronauts, engineers, teachers and nurses found it rather annoying being referred to as "he". Why should the male pronoun take precedence over the female?
People tried to change
Then there was the awkward period when a singular antecedent was followed by the phrase he or she, him or her, or the even more awkward s/he.
A judge must bang his or her gavel to call the court to order.
When a new nurse arrives at the clinic, he or she should always check in with reception.
An engineer needs certifications if s/he wants to get a high-level position in the company.
But this just clogged up our sentences and made them even more frustrating and irritating to read.
The world is coming around
In 2015, Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage finally called people out on gender-neutral pronoun consistency. Here's the gist of their conclusion:
"From the earliest times until about the 1960s it was unquestionably acceptable to use the pronoun he (and him, himself, his) with indefinite reference to denote a person of either sex, especially after indefinite pronouns and determiners such as anybody, ... every, etc., after gender-neutral nouns such as person ... [but] alternative devices are now usually resorted to. When a gender-neutral pronoun or determiner ... is needed, the options usually adopted are the plural forms they, their, themselves, etc., or he or she (his or her, etc.)"
So, that means these options are valid:
When a new nurse arrives at the clinic, they should always check in with reception.
An engineer needs certifications if they wants to get a high-level position in the company.
What are other professional writers doing?
Newspaper reporters, those who are heavily invested in writing compelling, concise, and engaging prose, use they and their as the pronoun for a gender-neutral antecedent. Wikipedia lists several influential newspapers like the London Sunday Times, The Guardian and US News & World Report switching to they and their to express gender neutrality.
Certain style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style recommend using they and their.
Others suggest a rewrite to avoid these situations altogether. For example:
Original sentence: Each scientist gave his opinion on global warming trends.
Reframed sentence: The scientists gave their opinions on global warming trends.
We think this might be the best option when it's possible. Rewrite the sentence so that the problem goes away. You are writers, aren't you? Rewrite.
They As a Personal Pronoun
"They" has been used as a singular pronoun as in the above examples since around the 1300s. However, in recent times "they" is increasingly used as a pronoun by non-binary people in place of 'he' or 'she'.
As seen above, many of us have been using the singular they in conversation to refer to individuals for years:
I like my teacher, they always value my opinion.
We gave the server at the restaurant a big tip—they really went above and beyond.
So it isn't difficult to make the jump to using they to refer to a known individual—whether they have told you their pronouns or you aren't sure yet:
This is my friend Sam—they're from Tennessee.
Where is Allie? Did they leave early?"
Remember—the best thing to do if you're unsure about somebody's pronouns is ask.
The Chicago Manual of Style sums up the quandary best:
"Gender bias ... On the one hand, it is unacceptable to a great many reasonable readers to use the generic masculine pronoun (he in reference to no one in particular). On the other hand, it is unacceptable to a great many readers (often different readers) either to resort to non-traditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she or s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers."
We're going to take a stand though:
- Stick with they and their when you encounter a gender-neutral antecedent.
And if you just can't face it, rewrite the sentence so that the problem goes away (unless you're using they as a personal pronoun—then use "they" as you would use "he" or "she").
How do you handle gender-neutral inconsistencies when writing?