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

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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.

Curzan's argument for "they" makes sense in theory. But there's no way to get around the cognitive dissonance of an English professor proscribing the use of a plural pronoun to describe a single thing. It's just icky. And I don't want to think that grammar must be sacrificed on the altar of feminism: Shouldn't gender equality help us make more sense rather than less?

Which leaves us with he and she (and new words like zhe or yo, which are nice in theory but hard to imagine ever seeing wide usage). He/she and s/he are too clunky to solve the problem. And the 1971 example shows why the constant "he" isn't the answer either. As tempting as it may be to say that one must choose one's battles and that everyone knows "he" is neutral, it would mean something if we always said, for example, "ask a doctor for his opinion" rather than "her." The male pronoun's place as the unmarked pronoun is in its own way a marking. To be the default is to be superior.

But if "they" can become singular through frequent usage, couldn't the markedness of the pronoun change too? It could, and it has.

The common in-the-meantime practice of alternating she and he--and perhaps making an effort to use "she" in situations where some assumption of maleness might occur, and vice versa--requires just as much vigilance as rearranging all your sentences so that they are properly plural, but it also comes with a bonus. While the masculine pronoun was the default, the neutral option, and it remains so, using a feminine pronoun in a neutral sense is now completely normal. When someone writes about a hypothetical "she" for whom gender isn't intrinsic, anyone who gives it a second thought is likely to guess that she could just as easily be a he. And, though we may not yet live in a world where this is the case, the opposite ought to hold true. Eventually, the nonspecific "she" and "he" could end up as pronouns that only say what such a pronoun ought to say, that the noun in question is a human being.

An unmarked masculine pronoun would be a better outcome than using "they," and not just for grammar reasons. Turning to the plural in order to promote equality just sweeps the inequality between the sexed singulars under the rug. It doesn't have to be that way; red and green are opposites too but no value judgment is implied in the color with which one draws a hypothetical apple in order to illustrate the letter "A." Continuing to use "he" and "she" in a judicious but grammatical fashion is how we'll get there, to the future where you and I and he and she and they can all speak properly in more ways than one.

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

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