When Maguire again referred to the whistle-blower as he—“I think he followed the law every step of the way”—Schiff took another gender-neutral approach, using he or she: “Then why, Director, when the president called the whistle-blower a political hack and suggested that he or she might be disloyal to the country, why did you remain silent?”
Trump, for his part, was also dancing around the pronoun issue on Thursday morning. At a private event with American diplomatic officials in New York, Trump lashed out at the whistle-blower, saying, “He or she or whoever the hell they saw—they’re almost a spy.”
For as long as the whistle-blower’s gender remained unknown, the singular they was the most convenient pronoun to use—not just for Schiff and Trump, but also for news outlets reporting on the story. “Whistleblower Tentatively Agrees to Testify, Attorneys Say, as Long as They Get Appropriate Clearances to Attend Hearing,” read one CNN headline; the article made clear that it was the whistle-blower, not the attorneys, who needed the clearances.
On Thursday afternoon, however, The New York Times published the news that the whistle-blower was a man, and further identified him as a CIA officer previously detailed to work at the White House. (After which the Times national-security editor, Amy Fiscus, tweeted, “And yes, it’s a he.”) The Wall Street Journal soon followed up with its own reporting identifying the whistle-blower as a man.
Despite these reports, not everyone was eager to identify the whistle-blower as “he.” When Schiff appeared on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show on Thursday night, he criticized Republicans who argued that “this whistle-blower wasn’t even listening to the call himself or herself, so they’re not credible,” adding, “Well, actually, their allegations are more credible because their sources are so good.”
In an ever shifting political story centering on a person whose exact identity has remained concealed (at least for now), the singular they has proved to be the best option for a pronoun that avoids gender reference. While the more cumbersome he or she has occasionally crept in, the widespread use of they in the whistle-blower saga goes to show just how accepted—and how necessary—the singular form of that pronoun has become, despite complaints from naysayers that it is somehow ungrammatical.
Construing they as singular is nothing new, though it has been making fresh inroads lately. When there is a generic antecedent such as everyone, not referring to a specific person (as in “Everyone can choose the pronoun they want”), the use of they has been commonplace for centuries, found in the writing of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and countless others. But even when a particular individual is picked out by the pronoun, the singular they has shown itself to be extremely useful. If the singular they came to be more widely embraced as an acceptable grammatical choice, then there would be no need for any verbal gymnastics in cases like the whistle-blower’s, where a person’s gender may be at least temporarily unclear.