The Most Complicated Words in English: 'He,' 'She,' and 'They'

How to reconcile the tension between grammatical correctness and gender inclusiveness

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The people of Sweden get a lot of credit for their attitudes toward gender and language. An article in the New York Times earlier this month described how, at the Nicolaigarden preschool in Stockholm, teachers use "friend" to refer to children in order to avoid using gendered pronouns. The new-ish Swedish gender-neutral pronoun hen also gets mentions in articles like Megan Garber's piece here at The Sexes this month about the overtaking of the word "mankind" by "humankind." But, as Garber shows, English isn't beyond hope.

We have "human." We have "friend" too. (And, as a non-Swedish-speaker depending entirely on Google Translate, I'm guessing we may have a better word for it than Swedes do: the top result for "friend" is "vän," which has the secondary definition "loverboy.") We have words like "folks"—which was oft-used at a camp where I once worked because we couldn't know the gender and number of the people who made up every child's home—and "people" and "hey you."

Still, English gets a bad rap, and a lot of the problem with gender in English grammar is due to three little words: He. She. They. English is full of non-gendered collective nouns like "folks," but it lacks a way to refer to one hypothetical person without referring to his—see what happened there?—hypothetical gender. A lot of grammatical handwringing goes on over whether the neutral plural "they" is or ever will be an appropriate replacement. At first glance, the choice seems to be a stark one between a grammatical wrong and a gender-conscious one. But maybe the solution is contained in the problem: He. She. They.

In an episode of Slate's excellent Lexicon Valley podcast back in May, the featured guest, Professor Anne Curzan, who researches English and gender at the University of Michigan, made a logical and mostly-convincing argument for the singular "they." She told hosts Mike Vuolo and Bob Garfield that "they" is already used widely in a singular sense (nice because it's always easier not to invent a new word)--and that this exact transition in meaning has happened before and we all lived to tell the tale. The word "you," she said, used to be exclusively plural but eventually came to replace the singular "thou."

In the same podcast episode, a 1971 incident at Harvard Divinity School was singled out as a turning point in thinking about the importance of which gender we assign our hypothetical individuals. Two female students attempted to ban the in-class use of male words when not referring to specific men; a linguistics professor wrote a letter to The Harvard Crimson mansplaining why they were off-base. The professor, Calvert Watkins, said that the male pronoun is "unmarked"--just a neutral default--but didn't address why we might think that "man" means humankind and "woman" does not.

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Lily Rothman is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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