Dealing with the defect in English

Image credits: Dinosaur comics #2079, © Ryan North

(This post will be of interest mainly to grammar buffs, language pedants, and people writing books.  You’ve been warned!)

English is a wonderful language, a difficult language, and a frustrating language. It has 350,000 different words, or maybe 1,000,000 (depending who you ask) – but it’s missing two really important ones: a pair of gender-neutral 3rd-person singular pronouns. We have he/she and his/her, but no nongendered equivalents. That’s a real problem for a writer who wants his or her (see?) language to be inclusive, and in the 21st century it’s surely a defect in our language*.

I had to deal with this defect in writing my guidebook for scientific writers. I’m far from the first person to notice the problem, of course, and my solution isn’t unique either. But I thought it might be useful for others to see how I came to the solution I did. So here’s my thought process; if you disagree, please offer suggestions in the Comments.

There are actually three different cases that call for the 3rd-person pronouns. Two are easily handled; the third is the real problem.

(1) Referring to a specific person, identified by name.

Here the appropriate gendered pronoun works just fine: Once John had published his first book, he found editors more interested in his proposals. Alternatives are jarring. If you find yourself referring to many more he’s than she’s, though, ask yourself whether you could be writing about a more representative set of people.

(2) Referring to a specific person, not mentioned by name.

Here gendered pronouns still seem OK: My colleague shared her best advice for the design of my experiment. But again, be sensitive to gender balance in the set of people you’re mentioning.

(3) Referring to a nonspecific person.

Here’s where we need a linguistic trick to avoid writing something like A scientist must work hard on his writing (ugh). There are a lot of tricks one can try, and any of them is probably better than the noninclusive default he. Unfortunately, none of them is perfect. Here are some candidates, and my (brief) reactions. First, what I think are dead ends:

(a) You can use (s)he, he or she, his or her, etc. More than occasional use sounds forced and awkward, though.

(b) You can use he and she alternately. This is likely to sound awkward, and leaves any individual use noninclusive – which is a problem when a use is removed from context, for example by quotation.

(c) You can use he and she in alternate paragraphs, sections, or chapters. This reduces the awkwardness, compared to alternating by use, but increases the local noninclusivity.

(d) You can borrow or coin a word new to English, like thon (a contraction of that one, proposed in the 19th century by Charles Crozat Converse, and for a while, listed in some dictionaries). Such attempts are bound to seem jarring, though, and none has yet caught on (despite T. rex’s approval, thon seems to have sunk without a trace). Curiously, this is what Swedish appears to be doing: borrowing the Finnish nongendered hän to complement the gendered han and hon. Perhaps we’ll see some such solution take off in English, but if so, I’ll be pretty surprised.

 Now, what I think are better solutions, especially when they share the load:

(e) You can rephrase or rewrite to avoid using a pronoun at all: A scientist must work hard at writing. This runs smoothly in many cases, but is awkward in others – especially when omitting the pronoun would force repetition of the noun in sentence after sentence.

(f) You can use the plural noun, allowing a plural (and nongendered) pronoun: Scientists must work hard at their writing. Again, this often works smoothly, but sometimes the singular is essential to meaning.

(g) You can use the 3rd-person plural pronouns they and their as singular: A scientist must work hard at their writing. Because the first two options won’t always do, I think the singular they is something writers just need to adopt. The obvious objection is that this breaks a simple rule: in English, a pronoun must agree in number with its antecedent. OK, that’s a problem, and some readers will catch at a usage and count it as a rule violation. Fewer, though, than you might think. In fact, many writers make this “error” without intending to, and many readers don’t notice it. I did both in writing and revising my book: searching revealed several uses of the singular they I don’t remember deciding on and that I didn’t notice in revision. Not only that: the rule being broken seems to date only to the late 18th century, to the Latinization of English grammar that gave us such other illogical “rules” like the prescription against split infinitives. The singular they has been used since (at least) the 14th century, and the invention of a rule against it didn’t prevent its continued use. Use by whom? Oh, Shakespeare, the translators of the King James Bible, Jane Austen, Geoffrey Chaucer, Lord Byron, George Orwell, George Eliot, and many more – not a bad company to keep, as writers go. (For an extended disquisition on the singular they, including a lot of linguistic history, see here.) None of this means the singular they is perfect, of course; in some sentences it’s jarring and worth avoiding. But it isn’t a newfangled idea, it isn’t the mark of a poor writer, and it isn’t a violation of some eternally unyielding principle of the language.

So in summary, here’s what I did with my book. First, when I could, I rephrased to avoid the issue (solutions e and f). When doing so made the writing clunky, or when it would have distorted my meaning, I used the singular they/their (solution g). If it’s good enough for Jane Austen, it’s good enough for me.

Finally: there’s a broader point about writing here. The rules of grammar exist for only one reason: to make communication between writer and reader clearer. When a grammar rule impedes clear communication instead, it’s time for that rule to go. Good writers violate grammar rules (occasionally and selectively) for this reason, and in doing so they help our language evolve along with our needs for it. The rule that they disagrees with a singular antecedent is, I suspect, heading rapidly for the dustbin – and that will fix the defect in our language.

© Stephen Heard ( Apr 23 2015

*Not all languages share this defect. Persian, Swahili, Turkish, Fula, and Finnish, for example, use entirely nongendered pronouns, and Swedish is in the process of borrowing the Finnish pronoun to solve its version of the defect.


12 thoughts on “Dealing with the defect in English

  1. D. Huber

    Their/they is also increasingly accepted, which is really the litmus test in English. (E.g. Most of my students use it and would probably find “he” or “she” somewhat jarring.)

    Another defect in the language: no separate plural form of “you”.


  2. Jeremy Fox

    A philosophy prof of mine from my undergrad days alternated chapters in a book he wrote–using “he” in one chapter, “she” in the next.

    Sorry, I don’t buy the singular “they”, it just sounds and looks wrong to me. And pointing out to me that it only sounds and looks wrong because of an accident of history a few centuries ago doesn’t help. You can’t escape history just by noting that it’s history, especially not when the history is several centuries old. In much the same way that you’re not going to convince people that Pleistocene rewilding is a good idea by saying that it’s only an accident of history that we think of mastodon- and sabertooth tiger-free North American prairies as “natural”.


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Huh – I think that’s a pretty good argument for rewilding! More on topic: I thought I agreed with you, Jeremy, until I discovered that I was using the singular ‘they’ quite frequently without noticing. Perhaps you, unlike me, are true to your convictions… but are you sure?


      1. Jeremy Fox

        I may well use the singular ‘they’ by accident sometimes–which just shows that sometimes I make mistakes I would prefer not to make.

        Re: arguments for rewilding, the same argument justifies Jurassic rewilding (once the technology is available), since it’s only because of accidents of history that dinosaurs no longer roam Alberta. Same for Carboniferous rewilding (ferns! meter long dragonflies!), and Cambrian rewilding…History is *nothing but* accidents of history. So you can’t justify a preference for one historical state of affairs over another by saying that your preferred state would exist already if it weren’t for some accident of history.

        Plus, whether or not something exists (a grammatical rule, an ecosystem, whatever) has nothing to do with whether or not it’s a good thing. “Is” (or “isn’t”) doesn’t imply “ought”.


    2. Michael Koontz

      I hadn’t heard the argument that the establishment of the rule was an accident in history in the first place! I was persuaded to use ‘they’ as a singular pronoun when I learned that ‘you’ experienced an analogous (homologous, even) change in its usage from being a strictly plural second person pronoun to being both singular and plural. ‘Thou’ was the singular pronoun until it fell out of favor for being too disdainful. I think it’s time for a similar evolution of ‘they’.

      Ironically, I got here from the post on flubbing a job interview, which I got to from Dr. Fox’s recent post on professionally embarrassing things we’ve done, and one of mine was publicly being called out for using ‘he’ when using ‘they’ (or any other non-gendered pronoun) would have been the better choice. Full circle!


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