Using "they" for generic singular

Subject: Using "they" for generic singular
From: Richard Mateosian <srm -at- C2 -dot- ORG>
Date: Mon, 18 Dec 1995 17:42:46 -0800

We surveyed the copyediting-L subscribers on this subject for the FAQ. I
wrote the argument for number two of the three competing positions, which
were, in essence:

1. Get rid of generic "he," replacing it by rewriting and with variations of
"he or she."

2. Get rid of "he is," etc as a generic singular. In most cases we can use
"they are," etc instead.

3. Continue to use generic "he."

Position 3 received the most votes. Positions 1 and 2 totaled about the same
as position 3. Here's my argument for position 2:

EXPLANATION: This position has two parts: (A) generic use of "he" should be
discontinued; and (B) it is sometimes acceptable to use "they" with a
singular antecedent.

A. Generic use of "he" should be discontinued
There is no need to repeat the excellent arguments put forth in favor of
this point by the advocates of position 1. However, it seems necessary to
answer some of the persuasive arguments for position 3.

1. Generic "he" remains in widespread use
This is certainly true. If you believe in the "if lots of people do it, then
I should do it too" theory, there's nothing more to say. However, its use
seems to be declining, so this argument may not continue to carry weight.

2. Contorting the language to avoid generic "he" is worse than using it
That's a subjective matter, but there's no need to contort the language. No
one has put forward an example that *can't* be written in straightforward
English to avoid generic "he."

3. Attempts to avoid generic "he" call attention to themselves and offend
readers who resent "political correctness"
We all shudder (or laugh) at abominations like s/he/it. However, recasting
generic expressions in the plural or in the second person should raise no
eyebrows at all. An occasional "he or she" is hardly noticable any more.
Nor is "they" with a singular antecedent. Deferring to the feelings of those
who feel excluded or insulted by generic "he" isn't political correctness,
it's common courtesy.

4. In some cases, generic "he" gives prose an immediacy that no readily
available reformulation can match
This is a subjective matter, but I don't really see a noticable difference
in immediacy among the following:

When a doctor hears his patient's pleas, what is he to do? Where will he
find the answer? In his training? In his faith in God? In his innermost
soul? When he faces the patient, he faces himself.

When doctors hear their patients' pleas, what are they to do? Where will
they find the answer? In their training? In their faith in God? In their
innermost soul? When they face the patient, they face themselves.

When you hear your patient's pleas, what are you to do? Where will you find
the answer? In your training? In your faith in God? In your innermost soul?
When you face the patient, you face yourself.

5. No matter how you squirm, there will always be some sentence that
generic "he" works better in than anything else
Let's take that as given. Because of the harm that generic "he" causes, that
argument isn't good enough. It's like similar arguments for telling "little
white lies" or xeroxing articles out of magazines. The fact that it's
convenient doesn't make it right.

B. It is sometimes acceptable to use "they" with a singular antecedent
Given that we have resolved to avoid generic "he," there are several tools
available to achieve that goal. Using "they" with a singular antecedent is
one of those tools. It doesn't work in every situation, but in many --
perhaps most -- cases, it's so natural that most people won't even notice it.

"They" with a singular antecedent works well, because it's already part of
everyone's vocabulary. Like the generic "he," it entails no new words, just
a shift in semantics. Certain information that we once conveyed by the
familiar phrases "he is" and the like, we can now convey by the familiar
phrases "they are" and the like. Many people already do this, and the usage
predates the women's movement by hundreds of years.

Antecedents range from general to specific. "They" with a plural verb works
well with general antecedents, but not as well with specific ones. Thus,
"everybody should have their blood pressure checked annually" doesn't jar us
with a contrast between singular and plural. When we use the word
"everybody" it's grammatically singular, but it doesn't conjure up a mental
picture of a single person.

On the other hand, in "when you see your physician for your annual checkup,
make sure they check your blood pressure," the antecedent "physician" does
conjure up a picture of a single person. For many people the contrast
between that picture and the word "they" will be jarring.

Use your ear and common sense to find the dividing point between cases where
singular "they" sounds OK to you and cases where it doesn't.

What distinguishes the cases that eventually sound OK from the ones that
probably never will is the degree of specificity in your mind when you think
of the antecedent. If you picture a specific person, it's hard to say
"they." If you think of a category of people, it's easy to say "they."

Different people have different mental processes, so the same sentence may
conjure up a specific mental image in one mind but a general one in another.
Some people may feel comfortable using "they" rarely, or even never. Others
may be able to use it comfortably most, or even all of the time. Thus the
rule calls
for the individual speaker or writer to set their own dividing point. For
most people, familiarity will move this dividing point in the direction of
greater use of "they" with singular antecedents as time passes.

"They" with a singular antecedent is just one item in the toolkit of those
who wish to avoid using generic "he." It isn't the only item, and it doesn't
fit every situation, but it's useful.


I hope this helps. ...RM

Richard Mateosian President, Berkeley STC
Freelance Technical Writer srm -at- c2 -dot- org Review Editor, IEEE Micro

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