Gender-Neutral Pronouns: He, She, or They?


A friendly grammar war broke out on my personal Facebook page over this delightful video. The Baltimore Sun’s John E. McIntyre argues that “they” has always been acceptable as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun in the English language. I was sold the moment he said Jane Austen used “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. Who am I to quibble with literary genius?

In all lighthearted serious, my inner grammar nazi and my egalitarian always wrestled with the singular gender-neutral pronoun. My Rod and Staff grammar books hammered home the importance of using a singular pronoun when referring to “somebody/one” and “everybody/one,” which served me well for the grammar section of the SAT. It drives me nuts when people fail to acknowledge that “somebody/one” and “everybody/one” are singular. 

At the same time, I lament that English lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun. It makes discreet gossiping impossible for a die-hard grammarian. I can’t go around saying, “So she or he was telling me his or her significant other did such and such, and I told him or her to do this thing, which of course he or she ignored.” That’s neither discreet gossip nor discreet grammar. Errnt. Fail, English language. Big time fail.

(I refuse to acknowledge “one” as a viable possibility: “If one wants to write well, one must never use something as pretentious as the pronoun ‘one.'”)

And then there’s the whole issue of gender equality in the third person singular gender-neutral pronoun. I don’t tend to read too much into an author who uses “he” as the singular gender-neutral pronoun of choice (unless the author makes a sexist comment — then he or she gets no mercy). I grew up reading older books, so this seems the most natural singular gender-neutral pronoun to me. But now that I’m older and aware of the issues and implications surrounding that little pronoun, it’s hard to view “he” as gender-neutral anymore, even without ascribing patriarchal motivations to the author who uses it.

I appreciate authors who use “she” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. It still seems like a deliberately politically correct move, but I like the symbolism of enabling either “he” or “she” to represent all of humanity.

Then there are authors like me, who try to use both “he” and “she” as the gender-neutral singular pronoun in the same work. That becomes a psychological nightmare: Why did I pick “he” for this sentence? Why did I pick “she”? Am I being overly sensitive? Have I become that PC feminist everyone hates? Why would the English language betray me like this?! 

I’ve seen some interesting stylistic patterns particular authors adopt to arbitrate this insanity. Some will use “she” exclusively when referring to a child or infant, and “he” when referring to an adult. (I wonder if they thought through those implications.) Relationship authors get it easy: they use “he” in the husband/boyfriend sections, and “she” in the wife/girlfriend sections. I tend to use “she” as the not-so-gender-neutral singular pronoun, both because I am a woman and I write for a primarily female audience.

Frankly, if it came down to it, I’d rather use “he” than “he or she.” “He” is stylistically pleasing. “He or she” tries too hard. I respect an author who uses “he or she” up until the third or fourth time he or she uses it. Then I just get annoyed. (Side note: I don’t feel any leniency toward writers past the twentieth century who use “man” or “mankind.” There’s a gender-neutral, gender-inclusive term for that, and it’s humanity. Use it.)

After listening to John McIntyre’s arguments and reading the debate on my personal Facebook page, I’m going to stick to these general rules: pray the academic community accepts “they” as a third person gender-neutral singular pronoun, use “she” in essays and social media, “he or she” in academic writing, and “they” in gossip and speech.

Jane Austen would approve…of my pronoun uses. Probably not my gossip. Sorry, Jane.

What do you use: he, she, or they? Any other grammar pet peeves?

// Don’t get too hung up on the little things, and de-stress from the world’s atrocious grammar

2 thoughts on “Gender-Neutral Pronouns: He, She, or They?

  1. Mindi

    Jane would totally approve of your gossip! Read her letters to her sister! (;

    At my church, there’s a bit of debate about whether we should use “thou” or “you” in our liturgy. Our priest insists that because “thou” is actually the informal, single “you” (much like Romantic languages’ “tu”), we need to use “you,” which is (was) more formal. So if the English language has gone from using “you” as a formal, second person plural to our generic second person pronoun, I think we can do the same with “they.”


    • Bailey Steger

      I love that your church has opinions on the thou/you argument! That makes me laugh. Now I feel good about updating all the old hymns and prayers to “you.” Except for the Lord’s Prayer. I’ve tried to change over “thine”/”thy” to “your,” and I just can’t remember the update!


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