The Great Debate over the Third Person Singular Pronoun: He, She, or They?

To “They” or not to “They,” that is the question!

Why oh why doesn’t English have a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun? Life as an editor, and as any kind of writer, would be so much easier. French has on, Spanish has usted, and English has…one, which is so darn formal that we rarely use it. So what do we do? Do we dare use “they”?

If you know the gender:

Obviously, if the gender of the referent is known, this isn’t even an issue because we can use “he” or “she.” For example, if “Angelina Jolie” is mentioned in the previous sentence, we can use “she” in the following sentences. If only it were always this easy!

If you don’t know the gender:

What happens when, as is commonly the case, the gender of the referent is unknown? Newspaper articles deal with this situation all the time. For example, if “a teacher” is mentioned in the previous sentence, we don’t know if it’s a “he” or a “she.”

Also, sometimes we want to refer to a person in general, so we wouldn’t want to specify the gender.

In these two cases, we have several options:

  • We can use “he or she” or “he/she” or “s/he,” or alternate between “he” and “she,” but all of these choices are awkward and cumbersome.
  • We can use “one,” but this is very formal.
  • We can rewrite the sentence, but this can involve a lot of work.
  • We can use “they,” but this is quite controversial.

What do the style guides recommend?

My two style guides both recommend using “they” for a singular referent in most cases.

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed.) states the following:

“A singular antecedent requires a singular referent pronoun. Because he is no longer accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of either sex, it has become common in speech and in informal writing to substitute the third-person plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves, and the nonstandard singular themself. While this usage is accepted in casual contexts, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing” (2010, 215–6).

The Copyeditor’s Handbook agrees:

“…the newer grammar books recommend using the plural pronoun after an indefinite subject…” (Einsohn 2011, 361).

What do I recommend?

Until I became an editor, I happily used “they” for all my singular, gender-neutral needs. I was taught to do it and I don’t really have a problem with it. I even encouraged my own students to do it (though I usually advised using the general plural rather than the singular where possible). But once I started taking editing courses, I realized what a contentious issue it really is. Now, I will still use “they,” but not with a clear conscience! My obsessive, perfectionist side doesn’t like using something that many consider “wrong.”

Nowadays, I try to rewrite sentences as much as possible to avoid this problem altogether. I find the easiest way to accomplish this is by making the referent plural. Then I can use “they” all I want, guilt free!

For example, instead of writing “Tell the student to read his or her paragraph out loud,” I’ll write “Tell the students to read their paragraphs out loud.” Usually the meaning remains the same with a switch from singular to plural, especially in general cases like this.

I would encourage you to teach your students to use the general plural when writing their essays as well. For example, if the topic was “stress,” students could start their essays by saying something like “People have a lot of stress in their lives these days” instead of “Each person has a lot of stress in his or her life these days.”

When there is a specific singular referent but the gender is unknown, I would advise rewriting the sentence to avoid pronoun use if at all possible. Failing that, the choice is yours! Personally, I would use “they,” but you can choose any one of the four ways mentioned in the bulleted list above. Then cross your fingers and hope it doesn’t come back to bite you in the you-know-what!

Have a nice “they,”



Leave a Comment ↓

  1. Jean Finley says:

    Mar 02, 2018 at 4:43 pm

    Interesting topic. Sure, “one” is a bit formal, but fits well in a lecture or in a teaching situation or guided tour situation. Plenty of well read people (more in the U.K. than here) still use it.
    What I don’t like about “they”, is it’s used so widely and tends to put the “blame” or “responsibility” on vague authorities, administration in a business or institution, etc. Often what works well is
    “a person” or “people” , and if these are qualified, can require zeroing in a bit from the gigantic and anonymous “they”. e.g. People who are on diets often… or A person on welfare could find that….
    The speaker in these cases reins himself in a little so as not to make a universal statement that sounds like fact. It seems to me the trend to “They” invites huge generalizations, and takes not much responsibility for thinking clearly. The listener needs to quiz them…”Exactly which group are you referring to when you say that?” etc. Generalizations
    in today’s world can lead to misinformation or disinformation, whether intentional on the part of the speaker or not (viz. current North American politics !)

    • Tanya Trusler says:

      Mar 07, 2018 at 6:36 pm

      Really interesting points, Jean! I agree that “they” can remove responsibility. I also agree that “a person/people” works well for generalizations. However, once you’ve said “a person,” we probably don’t want to keep referring back with “him/her” and we don’t want to keep repeating “a person.” I like using “they” so we don’t have to keep repeating the noun or saying “he or she” or “he/she.”

  2. Hardy Mah says:

    Sep 16, 2012 at 11:40 pm

    I think it’s better to create a new word like “ze” to stand for “he or she” or “he/she”, then we don’t have to debate any more ;)

    • Tanya says:

      Sep 17, 2012 at 2:33 pm

      Good suggestion, Hardy! He, she, and ze! ;)

  3. Tyson Seburn (@seburnt) says:

    Jul 16, 2012 at 11:53 pm

    It’s so funny that this is any sort of contentious issue. I’ve only infrequently dipped in an out this even being a conversation. The one time I notice myself doing it most frequently is when I don’t want the listener to know the gender of the subject. Otherwise, the generality of ‘they’ is no more confusing than the universal ‘you’.

    • Tanya says:

      Jul 17, 2012 at 3:12 am

      Very true, Tyson. It never used to bug me until I knew it was supposed to bug me. ;)

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