A question of grammar … and of political correctness

May I ask you all for some advice?

Given that singular pronouns in English are gender specific when referring to people, which pronoun should one use when one wants to apply it universally, across both genders? For instance:

Each person is entitled to read whatever he wants.

The traditional grammar books consider this correct, the gender-specific “he” standing for all people, male or female. But many would consider this usage sexist. So we may write, equally correctly:

Each person is entitled to read whatever he or she wants.

Correct, yes, but clumsy. I have used this from time to time, but have not been happy with it.

Some would turn the issue on its head, and write:

Each person is entitled to read whatever she wants.

Once again, this is grammatically correct, as there is no law in grammar, as far as I know, that insists that a pronoun applying universally must be masculine. However, I don’t see that this resolves the issue: we are still applying a gender-specific pronoun to cover both genders, and I can’t see that using the feminine rather than the masculine is necessarily an improvement. Also, I must admit that this sort of usage strikes me as overt point-making, and it tends to jar.

One may, of course, evade the issue altogether by changing to the plural:

People are entitled to read whatever they want.

This will do, but it takes away the emphasis on each individual that may have been intended in the original sentence, rather than on people en masse. The two may mean more or less the same thing, but the nuance is altered.

And sometimes, changing to plural is not possible: if we want to speak of “no person”, then “none” or “nobody” or “no-one” is invariably singular:

No-one needs to justify his taste in reading.

I have, I admit, used “their” instead of “his” on such occasions, and it tends to pass unnoticed. (At least, people are too polite to pointit out.) However, pedant that I am, I notice it, and it bothers me.

So what’s the solution? Should we use the plural whenever we can and avoid the issue? Should we modify existing rules of grammar, and admit “no-one” to be plural? I frankly have no idea, but would be interested to know everyone’s thoughts on this.


43 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jim on September 2, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    This is an interesting question. I read quite a lot of contemporary philosophy (than which nothing is more trendy) and note a distressing tendency to use “she” instead of “he” or, even more grating, to alternate the two. Eventually a sexless pronoun will evolve but in the meanwhile I prefer to dodge the issue by rephrasing, plus strictly rationed use of “his or her”. The thought of employing “their” without agreement of number revolts me. Jim


    • Yes, I tend to rephrase as well – usually by changing to a plural form when I can. But I don’t find this satisfactory, as it changes teh emphasis from individuals as individuals to people en masse. I have used “their” a few times for singular entities: i suspect that, whatever w e may feel about it, this will soon become common practice. Afterall, the rules f grammar should bethere to help us, and if they don’t offerus the help we need, it’s only reasonable to modify them!


  2. You have heard it said that all of life is politics. Well, it then follows that grammar is politics. Rules are created to control situations, people, and journalism students. Any rules created and continually endorsed through the years are inevitably the product of a ruling class that is almost always male. Grammar is a dominant-male scheme to control the thoughts and expressions of lesser people and is by definition, sexist.

    Some of us are too old to change our ways, even after seeing the truth behind the fiction, but I will rally to the side of anyone who seeks to overthrow the tyranny of grammar and the rigid shackles of gender differentiation.

    Heads will roll. Pronouns will suffer. Prepositions will die. Sound the alarum.

    (But one suggestion is to use a little circumlocution found in some backwoods areas of American and just say, “that one” or “t’other one” as in “That one brung the collards but t’other one brung the sidemeat.” No sexism in that pronouncement.)


    • Hello Mike, I must admit that I take a more benign view of grammarthan you do: grammar, as far as I am concerned, is to help us express ourselves clearly, and to help us understand each other. And if one regards grammar as advisory rather than compulsory, it works well. But hereis one instance where it doesn’t seem to work very well, and we need to find alternatives. The issue is which of the alternatives we go for!

      As for your example;

      “Each person is entitled to read whatever that one wants…”

      Hmm… I need to think about that one… 🙂


  3. Posted by ombhurbhuva on September 2, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    I have some remarks on just this point on my blog. Just enter cobra in the search box. To summarize: ‘they’, ‘their’ is o.k. having been used by such as Thackerey and Austen. The unmarked pronoun ‘he’ is affirmed by Eric Partridge in Usage and Abusage . It makes a useful distinction between a general reference to nobody in particular and ‘she’ as marked when some definite woman is referred to.
    So: “Somebody rang while you were out”
    – “What did they want?” is fine. Out of the great mass of people (they) a call has come. It’s idiomatic and moreover a feminist who has written a book on the subject prefers ‘they’.

    Papers in philosophy seem to have gone over to ‘she’ as the unmarked pronoun, a piece of grammatical positive discrimination as they see it. I expect in the future a footnote will explain this usage and say – for the sake of clarity and to avoid confusion we have changed the original to contemporary usage.


    • As someone who would use “they” without the slightest remorse – and would get very annoyed with anyone who corrected me – I’d go along with this (the example here is good, because there’s no other idiomatic way I can think of saying it).

      “Each person” implies the existence some sort of collective group of unspecified gender, from which individual “he”s and “she”s may be broken off.

      “She”, in the style of David Foster Wallace, I find annoying because it brings attention to itself. “He” I would avoid, even in conversation, out of a Jamesian vagueness.


      • “She” seems to me to have the same problem as “he”:it is still a gender-specific pronoun- so where’s the improvement? “She” does jar, I agree, but to be frank, “he” jars as well nowadays.

        I am myself unsure on this issue, and have tried various different options, but I think I am now coming round to using “them” and “their” in these instances.

    • Ombhurbhuva, thank you for that. I hadn’t seen your post before.

      I think I agree that the rules of grammar will be modified to accommodate “Their” in these instances. Grammar, after all, is there to serve us, and not the other way round! Currently, the existing rules do not satisfy our needs – so the existing rules have to give, I think!


  4. I frankly am tired of the politically correct police dictating how I should think. I don’t bother being “correct” and if a woman’s feminine identity is so fragile that she feels threatened by male gender specific pronouns (such as is used throughout the Bible) I think they have deeper personal issues to contend with.

    I think the same thing about women who curse out men who hold doors open for them.


    • Good point Sharon. But how many women were involved in the writing of the KJV of the Bible in 1611? Come to think of it, organized religion is a wonderful example of how a male-dominated society has perpetuated human restrictions in order to further their hegemony of gender suppression. But then, can we really compare twenty or thirty years of pushback from oppressed women with hundreds of years of inequality and male dominance?

      Do the women who curse when confronted by overt examples of gender differentiation, like holding a door open, at least use accepted grammar or do they rebel against that too? My experience, however, is that holding a door open for the person following is a courtesy that is extended both to men and women. It would be unbelievably sexist to only hold doors open for women.


      • Posted by Carolyn on September 2, 2013 at 8:52 pm

        But people do. I hold doors open for both sexes naturally, and both sexes hold doors open for me. But when we stayed with an older unmarried male relative and we began our visit with him ostentiously opening my car door and saying, “If you husband hasn’t got enough manners to do this, I’ll have to.” My husband knows I am capable of opening a door rather than have him rush round to do it. (Though he does rush to the outside of the footpath and is generally protective of me, which seems a bit silly, since he is a much more useful person than I am, and would be much more missed.)

        Then this man said, “Ha. This heavy suitcase – we know which of you this belongs to!” We’d only been there two minutes and my teeth were gritting!

        I say ‘their’ in those situations with no worries at all.

      • Indeed. Open doors for all!

        Oursociety has certainly been dominated by men. So have virtually all societies, I believe, and the tropes of language bear witness to that. (Not that gender discrimination is a thing of the past – even in the Western world; and in many parts of the world, oppression of women continues to be a stain on our shared humanity. But let’s not get into that here!)

        However, we can’t simply overthrow all that has gone before, and start at Year Zero: culture needs to build on what has gone before. And when what has gone before contains so much that is so enriching, it would be uthinking vandalism to reject merely for the sake of rejecting.

        But i am greatly in sympahy with Sharon on this point: if we are to be againsts exism, let’s focus on areas where it eally matters, and not get hung up over things that are relatively unimportant!

      • Caro, I too am coming round to using “their”, but I can’t claim not to have any worries about it. Grammar is there to serve us, and not the other way round. I see no point in altering the rules of grammar when hey’e eving us well, but here, we obviously have a need that in’t being served by theeh rules of grmmar: so new rules must perforce evolve. The question really is “Which new rules?”

    • Hello Sharon, I do agree that feminism has more more serious things to be concerned about than the use of “he” where people of both sexes are intended. SHould I, as a male, take offence when a field containing both cows and bulls is described as “a field of cows”? That’s just teh way language is!

      However, we have come to a stage where using “he” in these instances does jar. It shouldn’t, but it does. (Using of “she” jars as well.)

      As for holding open doors, as others have said, i hold open doors for everyone regardless of gender! I do admit, though, to being more careful about using certain words (mainly Anglo-Saxon in origin!) when I am with female company.,, 🙂


  5. Posted by shonti mukherjee on September 2, 2013 at 8:09 pm

    Aren’t ‘each individual has the right to read whatever they want’ and ‘nobody has to justify their taste in reading’ two completely different meanings/emphasis/deliberations?


  6. Is this a situation where one takes a leaf out of The Queen’s book?


  7. Posted by alan on September 2, 2013 at 8:35 pm

    The problem with all changes in usage is that if successful, then people will forget the reason for it, and it will lose any power it has.
    As I understand it, “you” is formal english usage, as opposed to the old informal “thou”. But I’ve only heard this through attempts to study a foreign language.
    Our apparent informality was apparently a very formal trend, to begin with.
    Can any German speaker tell me how “Sie” managed to become to mean “She”, “You”(formal) and “They” ? Assuming I’ve understood this correctly.


    • The formal “you” and informal “thou” exist, as you comment, in many non-English languages and incorrect usage in some societies is considered quite insulting. Here in the United States, the differentiation is still prevalent in controlled communities, like the Amish. I suppose this has a lot to do with adhering to language rules that went the way of the horse and buggy … wait, they still rely on the horse and buggy too.


  8. I use ‘they’ for the gender-neutral singular. Americans don’t like it much – I don’t care much…


  9. The only rule I would insist upon is that anyone caught using that perfidious mal-locution s/he should be boiled in their own ink and stapled to their keyboard until they relent. S/he is an abomination in which he is intact, while she has been beheaded. Thoroughly miscogynistic. And, what’s more, it implies that she is just a malformation of he — which is utterly absurd and even more notably miscogynistic than the graphic guillotining.

    As you see I have used the dreaded plural above (their, they), and you may be relieved to note my keyboard did not catch on fire. I don’t really like the plural, but I do tolerate it now and then.

    My preference is for ‘she’ if only because it is easier and requires less explanation — and, in this case, the shoe has, indeed, been on the other foot for so long, that I figure why not? And, frankly, I fail to see that it does any great harm. This has gone on long enough; time to set aside childish calls of political correctness. We have bigger issues worthy of our attention, — and, again, it does no harm to the language, at least none worth considering.

    I don’t think we will get a neutral pronoun. We have that in it, but it does not suit because it has implications of something that is somehow less than human. What could possibly suit: ot, et, ut as variations on it; shay, hay, hoo, shoo as variations on she or he? No, we will not get a neutral replacement, — at least not anytime soon.


    • By the way, claims that we are beset by hegemonies of this, that and the other are far more worrisome and recherché to my mind than using she for he. The matter never really achieved the diabolical level of these cartoon hegemonies — it always was and to this day remains the flabby dichord of human beings being awkwardly and quarrelsomely human. That altogether fantastic word, hegemony, is long overdue being put out to pasture.


    • “This has gone on long enough; time to set aside childish calls of political correctness. We have bigger issues worthy of our attention,…”

      Indeed. Sharon was making eaxctly this point earlier, although herconclusion was different from yours!

      (“from yours”? “to yours”? …. I always get this one confused…)

      The point is to use somethingthat is clear, and that doesn’t jar. To me, “he” and “she” both jar. But maybe that’s just me…


  10. Living in a German speaking country where this is taken far more seriously than in the English speaking world I would write “Everyone should read what he or she likes.” If there are many instances like that in a text I might use they.


    • Hello Caroline, I am – albeit reluctantly – scoming round to “they”.”He or she” does seem clumsy to me: only two extra syllables, I know, but they impedethe flow. And in any case, if we are pernickety enough to object to the use of “he” where both genders are intended, then what’s to stop us ojecting to “he or she”, and question why we aren’t using “she or he”? Why should “he” come before “she”?

      ‘Twere to consider iot too curiously to consider it so, as Horatio said in a different context, but since we’re considering it so curiously already… 🙂


  11. Posted by Brian Joseph on September 3, 2013 at 9:45 am

    I struggle with the same issue.

    Professionally I sometimes write exam questions and little blurbs for classes where I feel that I need to be extra sensitive in how I use these pronouns.

    I also have been caught using “their” when I probably should not be. For the same reasons that Mark mentioned above, I admit that I tend to use “she” a lot.


    • Hello Brian,
      I personallyhave a problem with using “she”: itseems to draw attenton to the writer’s sensitivity – and it doesn’t solve the issue – we’re still using a gender-specific pronoun. However, I think that there will be many different ways of solving the problem: each writer will use whatever they (he? she? one?) feels most comfortable with, until eventually, hopefully, a common usage will emerge. At the moment, I’m veering towards using “they”, even though grammar books currentlt judge it to be wrong.


  12. I never understood why “he or she” is so clumsy. Using that phrase adds just five extra letters (not words!), and seems perfectly viable to me. Nevertheless, not wishing to antagonize my readers, I tend to recast if possible or use the plural. I think the plural is gaining traction in the U.S. anyway.


    • Hello bfootgrrl,

      I must confess that to my ears, even these two extra syllables, short though they are, can impede the flow of the sentence. And if we have to use “he or she”, can it not be asked why the masculine comes first? Why not “she and he”? And if this is getting too silly (I agree – it is!), doesn’tthat make the initial issue a bit slly also?

      I don’t know what the solution is: it’s whatever comes most naturally to the writer, I suppose, and once on eparticularusage becomes widespread, the grammar books will have to be modified to reflect this. I am leanng towards using “they”, I must admit!

      Cheers for now,


  13. This is a fascinating post, as the question it asks is such a moot one. I think for me, it depends on context (like many things). If I’m informally enjoying a drink with friends, I’ll usually lapse into using the plural ‘their’/’they’ (I know the word ‘lapse’ betrays my uneasiness about it, which I share with you!), but if I’m teaching in a seminar or giving a lecture, I’ll sometimes (I confess) use ‘he or she’ just to show off to students (I like to think it also helps to instill confidence in my language abilities with them, so they feel they’re in safe hands, but I can’t pretend that showing off doesn’t play a part in it!).

    I’m with you on the use of ‘she’, which always makes me lose the thread of the writer’s argument, because it seems like point-making on his/his or her/their* part.

    *delete to suit individual preference


    • I must admit that when I’m talking, either informally with friends or giving a presentation, my grammar is all over the place, as I can’t think precisely at the speed of speech. When writing, I like to reproduce my speaking style – or, at least, as I’d like my speaking style to be. I find myself using “their”/”they” even in writing. It’s wrong grammatically, but the grammar book, as it currently stands, really does not really help us on this one!


  14. The problem is with the English language. There’s no gender neutral pronouns for these sorts of situations so there’s a need to popularize one.



  15. Posted by Jonathan on September 21, 2013 at 9:04 pm

    I agree that it’s bizarre that there’s no gender-neutral pronoun in English. I just find it strange that it wasn’t an issue before feminism. Just imagine the conversation:

    Person1 – ‘My friend has been ill for the last week’
    Person2 – ‘Oh that’s too bad. How is he now?’

    Surely, this must have been a problem in the nineteenth century just as much as it is today? After all, if Person1 is a woman and Person2 uses ‘he’ instead of ‘he or she’; couldn’t that have been considered a slight on Person1’s character by suggesting that she had a male friend? It must have been a problem then only for different reasons that it is a problem today.

    For me the possible solutions (in order of preference) are:
    1. We invent a gender-neutral pronoun
    2. Men use ‘he’ and women use ‘she’
    3. We use ‘he or she’ or ‘she or he’
    4. We use ‘they’ and pretend there’s no problem with it
    5. We stick with ‘he’ and declare that English is a masculine language
    6. We start speaking French


    • Hello Jonathan, I guess it didn’t use to be an issue in the past because no-one thoughttwice about it: it was quite acepted that “he” could stand for both genders. And it really shouldn’t be an issue now either: there are far more important battles to be fought on the path to sex equality. Using a male pronoun to cover both genders has no malicious intent; and I really don’t think it is taken amiss. Notusually, at any rate. However, such is our modern sensibility, it jars. And there’s little point pretending it doesn’t.

      Of your solutions:

      1. We invent a gender-neutral pronoun
      – If one can be invented that catches on, then fine. But it has to be something thatwill gain widespread acceptance: there’s little point trying to impose something such as thisfrom above.

      2. Men use ‘he’ and women use ‘she’
      – What about feminist men? Or sexist women?

      3. We use ‘he or she’ or ‘she or he’
      – It’s clumsy, and trips uo the flow of the sentence. Nopointtrying to write an elegantlyphrased sentence if one has to hall back on “he or she”.

      4. We use ‘they’ and pretend there’s no problem with it
      – This is widespread these days, and I’m coming round to this solution, albeit unwillingly

      5. We stick with ‘he’ and declare that English is a masculine language
      – In this instance, it’s certainly masculine. But we can all still speak of a “field of cows”, even though some of those “cows” may happen tobe bulls.

      6. We start speaking French
      – A splendid solution! But would we still be allowed to use expressions such as “le weekend”?

      Cheers, Himadri


      • The problem isn’t just about sex equality here. I should have said this earlier. The problem is actually that there’s no term that applies to people who are intersex. The gender neutral pronoun is one part of eliminating the false gender binary that currently exists. It goes along with the legal recognition of genders between the binary of male and female. Germany is going to legalize a third gender on November 1st and the issue is sure to come elsewhere in the coming years.

        One could make the argument that this only demands pronouns for an intersex person, but it seems like an intersex pronoun would essentially take over the role of the male pronoun for gender neutrality since having aspects of both male and female would very likely make it the de facto pronoun for containing elements of each gender.

      • Hello GW, I personally would be happy for “he/his/him” to cover all possible genders, including people who are intersex. But it seems that they/their/them, however gramatiically incorrect, is now the most widely used – and i guess one can’t hold back the tide!

  16. Posted by Jonathan on September 23, 2013 at 10:23 pm

    Hi Himadri,

    Although I like the idea of using an invented pronoun I must admit after looking at some of the choices on the informative blog in GW’s post I can’t see any catching on.

    For me ‘he or she’ isn’t too bad but sounds very formal so not too good for informal writing. The ‘men use he, women use she’ I suppose was more of a working option – it just makes me cringe a bit when male writers use ‘she’ in this way, almost as if they’re trying to atone for centuries of sexism. It’s even worse when authors switch between ‘he’ and ‘she’ throughout the text as that’s just confusing.

    Hmm, so it looks like I’m coming round to the ‘they/their’ option also. It would probably be the easier one to adopt as people are using it already.

    Do you know how it’s dealt with in other languages?


    • In French, the pronoun “on” is used, and that is gender neutral. In Bengali, no pronoun is gender-specific, so the problem doesn’tarise. I’m afraid we have reached the limit of my linguistic expertise here!


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