The End of Sexist Pronouns

They, it, he, she: who can tell the difference between pronouns any more?

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Grammar is one of those subjects that has the power to make otherwise well-behaved and mild-mannered people tied in knots. So it's surprising that one of the great debates of recent decades--whether "they" is an admissible substitute for singular nouns--seems to be resolving itself so quietly and unfussily.

As Alan Jacobs, an English professor and blogger at The New Atlantis, observed today, even those accustomed to older usages no longer find it strange to condone "they" as a generic singular noun:

I "have long noticed that the British exercise more freedom in this matter than Americans do. But . . . I can't do it myself. Just can't. I've spent too many years thinking it wrong and doing the "he or she" thing to change now. On the other hand, it's nice to think that I have one less common error to correct when I'm reading my students' papers.

Earlier in the week, a prominent language blogger, Mark Liberman, and two writers in the New York Times Magazine made a stronger case for the supposedly incorrect and non-traditional "they":

  • "They" Goes All the Way Back to the King James Bible, says Liberman. "Some pockets of stubborn prescriptivist resistance remain, and it's a comfort to know that we can count on the Sword of the Lord to help mop them up.
  • The Rule Was Cooked Up in the 18th Century, say Patricia T. O'Connor and Stewart Kellerman "It's a relatively recent usage, as these things go. And it wasn't cooked up by a male sexist grammarian, either"

Even the grammar books believe the change is "irreversible." Whether you agree or not, we have the Internet to thank for helping resolve the dispute. When everyone can express themselves without a copyeditor, prescriptive norms have a hard time holding up.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.