Ask An Editor: In 2020s America, is it better to say 'he/she' or 'they?'
In which a book editor addresses international students learning English about the grammatically correct way to refer to gender in Woke America
#english #american #language #advice #grammar #usage #current #contemporary #woke #times #gender #pronouns #history
I was blessed to receive my COVID vaccination earlier in 2021 than many others, thanks to a selfless act by a friend; so to pay them back karmically, I'm doing volunteer work in English editing in various places all over the internet this year. One place is the subreddit English Learning, in which befuddled ESL students around the world post questions that no one else can seem to answer for them, many involving odd phrases, idioms, and other bizarre corners of English grammar and usage. I find many of them so interesting, I decided to repost them here to my blog. Note, however, that many other people usually reply to these questions as well, and that I'm only sharing my own answer since I have no one else's permission to do so. See my main index page for the full list.
On April 18th, 2021, redditor 'forestoutlook' asked:
Would you prefer “he/she” or “they” when referring to someone with unspecified gender? Or does context/formality matter here?
This is a controversial subject in America right now. Since we have no government committee that decides what is and isn't “official” English (unlike France or Germany, for example, who do), the choice you make is often a reflection of your political beliefs.
When I was growing up in the 1970s, it was still considered “grammatically correct” to always say “he” if you don't know the gender. It was also considered correct to say “man” and “mankind” when referring to both men and women together. Those days are long gone.
The “official” phrase that replaced it in high school grammar books was “he/she.” But most people don't like this, because it's too wordy. If you hear someone say this anymore, it's typically because they're either old-fashioned, or they're politically conservative and want to emphasize that the only two choices are “he” and “she,” male and female.
The typical way most mainstream Americans now say it is just “they.” Yes, it's technically incorrect — “they” means “more than one person” — but this is the solution that best lets people be ambiguous about gender but still have a nice short thing to say.
But younger people and more liberal people might get angry at you saying “they,” because they'll feel you're not expending enough effort and energy into using the pronouns they specifically want to use in their specific situation. In that case, they will literally tell you at the beginning of the conversation what “their pronouns are,” and you will be expected to use that pronoun and nothing else — no “he,” no “she,” no “they,” but perhaps “ze” or “hir” or one of several other choices.
If an older person simply says “he” and then pauses a moment, throws their hands in the air and says, “Or SHE! It can be SHE too! He or SHE, I mean!”, he's purposely trying to be a dick. That's someone like me who was raised in the “bad old days,” when any person with an unknown gender was just called a man first and then asked for their gender later, and they're trying to indicate that they think the rule should've never been changed from this.
[Got a question for Ask An Editor? Send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.]