The "He/She/They" Controversy

Subject: The "He/She/They" Controversy
From: Dan Dieterich <ddieteri -at- UWSPMAIL -dot- UWSP -dot- EDU>
Date: Tue, 31 May 1994 14:54:36 -0600

I avoid using "they" as a singular too, but I feel guilty while doing
so. An Act of Parliament in England in 1850 changed "they" from both singular
and plural to plural alone. An article by Sharon Zuber and Ann M. Reed
entitled "The Politics of Grammar Handbooks: Generic _He_ and Singular _They_"
does a great job of describing the political/historical background of the
"he/she/they" controversy. It's in a recent issue of either _College English_
or _College Composition and Communication_--I forget which.

I understand why the users who responded to your informal poll found
the use of "they/them/their" as a singular pronoun "profoundly disturbing."
And yet, I also know it involves no grammatical incorrectness. As Zuber and
Reed point out, Shakespeare, Swift, Austen, Shelley, Dickens, Trollope, Shaw,
and many others used "they" as a singular. People stopped using "they" as a
singular and started using "he" instead because of the male-dominated social
structure in England and America in the 19th Century, not the grammatical
structure of our language.

Like most of those who have written in response to this question, I
don't use "he" as a generic pronoun. I want neither to ignore women nor to
denigrate them by perpetuating a 19th Century view of the role and status of
women in our society. Yet, I'm reluctant to use the singular "they" because I
fear that my readers might think me ignorant of the need to make pronouns
agree with nouns. When confronted with a potential problem, I--

1. Simply eliminate the pronoun from my sentence. (It's often unnecessary.)

2. Make the noun plural and use the pronoun "they."

3. Substitute "you," "I," "we," or "it," which are generic in English.
(Interestingly, in Japanese, you cannot say "I." You have to say
either "I, a woman" or "I, a man.")

4. Substitute a generic noun (e.g., "individual," "person," "writer," "user").

5. Use "he or she" only if I lack the imagination to find any other way to
convey my message.

- Dan

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