If a Person is in Doubt, They Should Just Avoid…

The rules of American English changed last month. According to the January 31 New York Times, 300-plus wordsmithing experts converged in a New York City hotel meeting room.  Members of the American Dialect Society,  they decided that ‘they’ is now the gender-neutral singular pronoun.

So, now, it is okay to say this:

If a person needs help, they should feel free to appeal to the nearest police officer.

This decision is a reminder that our language is a living, growing, uncontainable thing–changing as we use it. That’s a good thing–our words and constructions are not dusty and fusty; they are alive, they are evolving, they are in-the-moment rich.

But I do have to tell you I find using a plural pronoun for a singular antecedent a little bit clunky.

It’s a problem that has plagued writers of English for as long as I can remember.  In the 1960’s, when I was a new reader growing into an avid one, the rule was this: If you don’t know the gender, always default to the male pronoun.  So, in the sentence above, one would write, If a person needs help, HE should feel free to appeal to the nearest police officer.

The male pronoun was the correct option, and the female pronoun only to be used when one knew one was writing about a girl or a woman.

There’s a hidden message of ‘less-ness’ in that rule that the women’s movement pounced upon, creating uproar and expressing outrage.  Why, asked feminists, should we automatically use the male pronoun?  Why not use the female pronoun?

Oh, for heaven’s sake, many learned people responded, you’re splitting hairs.  What difference does it make?

Well, retorted the feminists, if it makes no difference [they, of course did not agree, but for the sake of argument] what would it hurt to use ‘she’ instead of ‘he’?

Controversy raged as I delved deeper into my undergrad and graduate studies.  I remember using an education textbook that alternated pronouns by chapter.  The first chapter used ‘he’ as the singular pronoun, the second chapter ‘she’. So, in Chapter One, I’d read, “If a teacher is sensitive and aware, he will plan for multiple learning preferences.” 

In Chapter Two, the author would write, “As a responsible teacher, she will always try to grade papers within a week of their receipt.”

I agreed with the feminists that always defaulting to the male was revealing–I had a prof who insisted that the power in society was indicated by such usages, and that our language clearly showed men to be the powerful gender–but that kind of awkward, self-conscious switching grated.  Wait a minute, I would think.  Who…?  Did we just change teachers? 

Using ‘he or she’ as a term was clumsy and distracting.  A group of English teacher-y types came up with s/he for the gender-neutral subject pronoun (I’m not sure how one would read that aloud), which worked until one had to switch to objective or possessive.  Him or her? Him/her? His/hers?


Discussion, dissension, and suggestions swirled. Marge Piercy, for instance, in Woman on The Edge of Time, created a utopian future where equality reigned and the gender neutral pronoun was ‘per’ in all cases, subjective and objective, a clip of the word person.

It didn’t catch on.

As I struggled and strove to develop my own writer’s voice, I came upon a solution that almost always worked for me: avoidance.  It’s a strategy I’ll still employ whenever possible, even now that I’m freed to use ‘they’ at will.

In most cases, I discovered, I could make the singular plural without changing the meaning or the flow.  So, it would be easy to write, “If people need help, they should feel free to approach the nearest police officer.”

If that didn’t work, what would it hurt to assign a gender to the theoretical subject? Usually, the meaning was not changed by this. I might write, “When the student needs help, he or she should first consult the teacher.”  But I could also write something like this:  The third grade girl needed help, so she consulted her teacher.

That, it seemed to me, was a more interesting, immediate read. We knew a little more about the child; we could visualize and respond to the situation.

Of course, there were times–very rare, but still real,–when I couldn’t finesse the situation and had to revert to ‘he or she’, ‘his or hers’ or ‘him or her.’

Now, when those circumstances arise, I have linguistic blessing to write they, their, or theirs.  And this is good in ways besides the grammatical–as our society becomes more open and accepting of many shades and gradations of gender, the language needs to unfold to reflect that acceptance–transforming awkwardness into thoughtfulness for those whose identities don’t fit neatly into one category or the other. The American Dialect folks’ change is not just convenient; it’s also compassionate.

I am glad we have a language that shifts and changes to reflect our society’s metamorphosis.  But I have to admit this: the use of a plural pronoun for a singular antecedent will always clang a discordant bell in my writer’s ear. It’s good to have the singular ‘they’  in the tool-belt, an acceptable choice when needed.  But whenever possible, I’ll make the subject plural or assign the neutral subject a gender identity.

I thank those 300-some linguists in the New York City Marriott ballroom for taking steps to make our writing lives easier, but I’ll stick to my original strategy: avoid, avoid, avoid.

How have you handled this?  Will this ‘ruling’ change the way you write?

Happy blogging, my friends!

#Grammar and usage