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Tales of the Exhausted Educator: He, She, or They - A Singular Conundrum

Updated on February 8, 2019
DWDavisRSL profile image

DW has 17 yrs teaching experience in elementary & middle school & is licensed in every core area. He's published 7 YA Novels.

Tales of the Exhausted Educator

The Exhausted Educator
The Exhausted Educator | Source
Source

Here is the issue

In this age of fluid gender identity, it is no longer considered appropriate to use the masculine pronoun ‘he’ when referring to a person of unknown gender. This has led many writers and speakers, myself included on occasion, to adopt the clumsy wording ‘he or she’ and its equally clumsy cousins ‘him or her’ and ‘his or hers’ when referring to someone whose gender is not known.

What does the American Copy Editors Society say on the matter?

The issue, it seems, is that the English language has no good singular pronoun to use when describing a person of unknown gender, or so I thought, until I read the article, “‘They,’ the Singular Pronoun, Gets Popular,” by Ben Zimmer, published in the April 15, 2015 edition of The Wall Street Journal.i

According to Mr. Zimmerman, the American Copy Editors Society has become more accepting of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun. Mr. Zimmerman goes on to point out “…that ‘they’ is more idiomatic than clunky alternatives that include both genders, as in ‘he or she,’ ‘he/she’ or ‘(s)he.’” ii


i Zimmer, Ben. "Can 'They' Be Accepted as a Singular Pronoun?" WSJ. The Wall Street Journal, 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 31 July 2016.

ii Ibid

The Washington Post and the American Dialect Society (yes, there really is one).

Other support, or perhaps it should be called affirmation, of the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun was reported by Jeff Guo of The Washington Post in his January 8, 2016 article, “Sorry, grammar nerds. The singular ‘they’ has been declared Word of the Year.” i

In his article, Mr. Guo reports that the “Singular ‘they,’ the gender-neutral pronoun, has been named the Word of the Year by a crowd of over 200 linguists at the American Dialect Society's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. on January 7th.” The word, according to the American Dialect Society, as reported in Mr. Guo’s article, is a useful “…way to refer to people who don't want to be called ‘he’ or ‘she.’" ii Mr. Guo points out that The Washington Post is already using the singular ‘they’ and has included the word in that form in its Style Guide since 2015.

Mr. Guo also quotes Ben Zimmerman, author of the previously referenced WSJ article, as saying at the meeting of the American Dialect Society, over which Mr. Zimmerman presided, that people are already using the singular ‘they’ in everyday speech and how the use of the singular ‘they’ also fits well with the new paradigm of gender identity.iii


i Guo, Jeff. "Sorry, Grammar Nerds. The Singular ‘they’ Has Been Declared Word of the Year." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 08 Jan. 2016. Web. 31 July 2016.

ii Ibid

iii Ibid

Even NPR reported on the issue

Even National Public Radio has weighed in on the matter. In a transcript of a commentary heard on the NPR radio show, “Fresh Air,” on January 13, 2016 by Geoff Nunberg titled, “Everyone Uses Singular 'They,' Whether They Realize It Or Not,”i Mr. Nunberg also reports on the decision by the American Dialect Society to make the singular ‘they’ its Word of the Year. He also acknowledges the inclusion of the singular ‘they’ in The Washington Post’s 2015 Style Guide.

Mr. Nunberg doesn’t stop with those two contemporary references, however. He points out how the singular ‘they’ also shows up in the works of such literary luminaries from the past as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, and Jane Austin.ii Mr. Nunberg acknowledges there are and have been critics of the singular ‘they’ since the Victorian Era when grammarians of that age insisted that ‘he’ stood for both sexes, or as they put it, “the masculine embraces the feminine.”iii

“That rule wasn't really discredited until the 1970s when the second-wave feminists made the generic masculine the paradigm of sexism in language,” wrote Mr. Nunberg.iv

While the singular ‘they’ is still frowned on by hardcore grammarians, most writers today are willing to use it rather than be stuck using an ungainly ‘he or she’ construct or offending gender-neutral advocates by using the feminine embracing ‘he.’v

i Nunberg, Geoff. "Everyone Uses Singular 'They,' Whether They Realize It Or Not." NPR. NPR, 13 Jan. 2016. Web. 31 July 2016.

ii Ibid

iii Ibid

iv Ibid

v Ibid

Where does The Exhausted Educator come down on the issue?

With this new knowledge of the growing acceptance of the singular ‘they,’ I will no longer clutter my writing with unnecessary double singulars like ‘he or she,’ nor will I count the use of the singular ‘they’ against my students when I grade their papers. They will be glad of that.

As always, I remain,

The Exhausted Educator

© 2019 DW Davis

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    • DWDavisRSL profile imageAUTHOR

      DW Davis 

      16 months ago from Eastern NC

      I don't foresee a likely future in which the world embraces a single language. There is an abundance of chauvinism in nations such as France, to adhere to their language. In fact, the French go to great lengths to ensure the purity of their tongue.

      With all its faults, American English is at least a living language that adjusts to new influences and absorbs aspects of the languages immigrants bring to America.

    • Jon Richfield profile image

      Jon Richfield 

      16 months ago from South Africa

      Let's face it, English is an inferior language in many ways. We can stick to it out of sentiment, or to conserve large volumes of our intellectual heritage, but the simple fact that this is just one issue among many shortcomings that natural languages are heir to, illustrates the reasons that we should all be migrating to something clear, elegant and rational such as Lojban.

      But meanwhile I prefer to apologise for adhering to the traditions and conventions, male embracing the female and all that, and promise to reform as soon as folks reform the language. Not before. There is too much about-it-and-abouting, and 99.35% of the venomous chatter is flatly ignorant and illogical. I can see myself being Mr Nice, just to be friendly, but not perpetrating infelicities for futilities that won't be around tomorrow anyway.

      Especially if we all wind up talking Mandarin instead of Lojban.

      Meanwhile, there are some expressions that have been discussed in this thread already, such as plural pronouns, but there seems to be little reference to "it" which is correct for a child when gender is not constrained ("When a child means well, it should not be punished." No "s/he" required. But "When the child tore her dress, we sent her out in her dungarees.")

      And no one seems to have mentioned "one" (German "man", Afrikaans " 'n mens") "When one stubs one's toe, one need not apologise for inveighing against the perversity of the inanimate." Is better than "When a guy or gal stubs his or her toe, he or she need not apologise for inveighing against the perversity of the inanimate." And there are worse in circulation.

      Ironically, one common illiterism is to inveigh against the use of "one" as an affectation, even when all the alternatives are artificial and clumsy, and when such criticism is in itself an affectation.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      16 months ago from UK

      We live in confusing times.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      16 months ago from Queensland Australia

      Yes, that's good news that the "fad" seems to have almost run its course.

    • DWDavisRSL profile imageAUTHOR

      DW Davis 

      16 months ago from Eastern NC

      John, while it still makes news on occasion, gender identity has lost some of its ability to make ratings and, somewhat like the MeToo movement, it has, if not disappeared, certainly fallen out of the public eye.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      16 months ago from Queensland Australia

      This was interesting DW. But, on reflection, I think I have always used the singular "they" when referring to anyone of undetermined sex (whether that has been right or wrong until now.) I do think that this "fluid gender identity" thing has gone much too far, however.

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