Gender-Neutral Pronouns

by Brian on August 20, 2004

I had always thought there was a dialect of English where _he_ could be used as a gender-neutral pronoun. That is, I always thought there was a dialect of English where one could say (1) without presupposing that the person we hire next will be male.

(1) The person we hire next will be able to teach whatever courses he wants.

Now I always (or at least as long as I can remember) thought it was a bad idea to speak such a dialect, because there was the obvious possibility for confusion between the gender-neutral pronoun and the gender-biased pronoun. And since the effects of such confusion could easily be to reinforce stereotypes and assumptions that shouldn’t be reinforced, I thought it was _politically_ bad idea as well as being an inefficient means of communication. But as I said, I thought there was such a dialect.

Geoff Pullum “has convinced me otherwise”: There is no such dialect of English. If there was, there would be a dialct of English where the following sentences would be acceptable.

* *Either the husband or the wife has perjured himself.
* *Was it your father or your mother who broke his leg on a ski trip?

And clearly neither of these is acceptable in _any_ dialect of English. So I now think that using ‘he’ as a purportedly gender-neutral pronoun doesn’t involve speaking a dialect I’d rather wasn’t used, it is just a mistake. As Geoff points out, English has a perfectly adequate gender-neutral pronoun – _they_ – and it should be used instead of _he_ in these contexts.



Bob McGrew 08.20.04 at 1:51 am

Another possibility is that you can’t use ‘he’ as a gender-neutral pronouns in a context where gender is presumed. Although the actual gender is unknown in both your examples, it’s presumed because of parallelism.


eszter 08.20.04 at 2:32 am

I’ve been told time and again – having used the they variant to avoid specifying gender – that it is grammatically incorrect when you are referring to a singular case. I struggle with this in some of my writing when I want to refer to a general Internet user (male or female) but do not want to keep saying he or she, which can get to be too tedious to read.


eszter 08.20.04 at 2:39 am

On another related note, I thought I’d mention that Hungarian doesn’t have gendered pronouns. It is completely possible to tell comprehensible stories and follow discussions without pronouns having genders. It’s also easier to deal with. Such basics of language seem to go quite deep. Although I speak English well, at times when I’m really tired I will sometimes mix up gendered pronouns. I find this curious given that I rarely use Hungarian these days (my native tongue). I guess at some very core level that’s how my brain got wired? (Less infantile comments on this will be appreciated.:)


sq 08.20.04 at 2:41 am

(disclaimers about never having wanted to be the guy who posts this on a blog)

*There is no such dialect of English… If there was, there would be a dialct of English…

!There is no such dialect of English… If there were, there would be a dialect of English…


stephanie 08.20.04 at 4:16 am

If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me–

“There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me,
As if I were their well-acquainted friend.” (Comedy of Errors, Act IV Scene 3)

Stolen from an excellent essay on this very subject:



Brian Weatherson 08.20.04 at 4:26 am

I was completely convinced of the appropriateness of singular ‘they’ by the kind of cases Stephanie cites. There are a bunch more “here”: I was particularly impressed by the example Wilde puts in the mouth of Lady Bracknell. If I have to choose between Lady Bracknell and some latter-day would-be dictator about what constitutes correct English, I’m going with Bracknell every time.


JR 08.20.04 at 4:51 am

‘They’ is a plural pronoun. Period. I wholely approve of the attempt to use a gender-neutral pronoun, but it MUST be a singular, otherwise you have a grammatical mess. Sorry, but usage by a famous writer does not constitute correctness. By the way, the only reason ‘he’ became the gender-neutral pronoun is because in our culture male is presumed to be the natural state and female the abberation. It’s the same phenomenon that produced ‘man’ for ‘the human race.’


kathryn from sunnyvale 08.20.04 at 4:56 am

My turning point was Hofstadter’s lovely little essay (and parody of William Safire) “A Person Paper on Purity in Language” in which he twists the world 90 degrees: pronouns are based on race, not sex.

The satired Safire bemoans those who’d try to come up with an alternative to whe and ble, whis and bler… why would we need a pronoun that includes all races? Don’t we all know that ‘whe’ includes whites and blacks? What could possibly be wrong with “One step for white, a giantstep for whitekind”? We all know that ‘repairwhites’ and ‘chairwhites’ can include blacks…

It hit me that its about as strange to not have gender neutral pronouns as it would be to not have race neutral pronouns.

I’m either going to be making an error in gender (he) or number(they). But ‘they’ is less erroneous, given its past history of once being singular. So as the lesser of two he-vils ‘they’ it is.


Martin Bento 08.20.04 at 5:04 am

Y’know, at some point it seems appropriate to remember that language is an artifact of human culture and therefore legitimatically subject to change at human will. In actual usage, singular “they” seems to be catching on. There are good arguments for it. There seems to better idea on offer. So let’s just decide it is legitimate and use it. Saying makes it so. If the language police don’t like it, put the onus on them to justify their objections. To be fair, sometimes I think a little conservatism with the language is advisable to avoid it degrading from simple sloth, but when conflicts like this come up, they should be decided on the merits, not on the superstition that “they” is a plural pronoun regardless of what we may think. “They” is what we think it is.


Another Damned Medievalist 08.20.04 at 6:26 am

You know, it never bothered me to use ‘he’ as the gender-neutral pronoun, mostly because I speak a couple of gendered languages and tend to see gender as more of a convenience than meaning something. I’m less sure, hoever, having spoken to a colleague in Women’s Studies about it. Apparently there are studies that show that, at least in the US, when young people are given readings about a professional person in very neutral terms, but using “he,” the readers overwhelmingly assume that the person is a man, where when “they” was used, the readers’ assumptions about gender were much more divided.
I wasn’t entirely convinced, but am now willing to use “they” instead.


Brian Weatherson 08.20.04 at 7:18 am

I would like to see some actual evidence rather than just confident pronouncements from those who claim “they” has to be plural. As Kathryn says, there is evidence that “they” came into the language as a singular-only pronoun, and its usage as a plural is a latter-day mutation, so if that’s right the said argument won’t be historical. And it pretty clearly can’t be from general use. Nor can it be from use by the most approved/respected sources. And I’m not really sure what other kind of argument could be offered. Maybe someone will say that God decreed that “they” is always plural. I won’t believe them, but if He really said it I guess that would be an alternative argument. Short of that, I’m not sure where the argument is going to come from.


novalis 08.20.04 at 7:18 am

The paper Kathryn mentions is online, and it’s also what influenced me and one of the smartest people I know to think about gender-neutral language.


Jaded 08.20.04 at 7:20 am

Good point about “he” not being acceptable. I also have a problem with “they” being used in the singular. On-line, most of my friends use “hir”, “hirs”, or “hirself” for objective and possessive case singulars, but a workable nominative form escapes us. “Hi” wouldn’t work in speech, as it would sound too close to “he” to do any good. Suggestions?


John Quiggin 08.20.04 at 7:22 am

Another version of the problem arises if you try sentences where the person referred to is likely (but not certain) to be a woman. For example:

“If you give a secretary a new WP package, on average he will take two weeks to learn it”

sounds wrong to me. But if “she” is correct in this context, then it’s clear that any statement of this kind embodies a f social judgements about gender roles.


aphrael 08.20.04 at 7:25 am

When I was in high school, I decided for a while that since ‘they’ wasn’t the correct gender-neutral pronoun for the singular, I would use ‘it’ instead.

This severely irritated a number of my classmates who were unable to process ‘it’ as applying to a person in a non-pejorative fashion.


Chris 08.20.04 at 7:32 am

Even if you accept “they” as a singular pronoun, there is still no acceptable reflexive form.

1. *Everyone should look at themself in the mirror once a day.

2. *Everyone should look at themselves in the mirror once a day.

1 is wrong because “themself” is not a word. I suppose we could just start using it, but it seems obviously nonstandard now.

2 is wrong because once you use “themselves,” it starts to feel like a true plural, but that can’t be right since “everyone” is singular.


Jim 08.20.04 at 7:50 am

I agree with those who propose “they”as a gender-neutral, singular pronoun but I can’t get even one of my colleagues in my Rhetoric and Writing Studies Department at SDSU to agree with me. He or she always brings up the numbers game, using language as a mathematical construct and not a living means of communication. The Modern Language Association (see “Handbook for Writers of Research Papers,” 60) goes through the same number-agreement rigamarole, as does Anne Raimes in “Keys for Writers” (262). Two things:
1. As noted by that damned medievalist, there is a gender bias problem in pronoun usage, and we should do something about it–official-like, with MLA and the other pooh-bahs.
2. I’m sure we all recognize that the most fierce, rigid, “defenders” of normative, algorithmic grammar are Bush supporters, no?


wolfangel 08.20.04 at 7:51 am

Apparently E. Nesbitt used it as the gender-neutral term in her books.

I also discussed this; my responses have had to do with the validity of using any/every/no-body/one as the antecedent for the singular they, and whether this makes the singular use of “they” a little suspect.

There seems to be a certain question of intent and knowledge; it seems weird to use they if you know the sex of the person and you’re not trying to hide the identity.


Brian Weatherson 08.20.04 at 7:52 am

I think 2 in Chris’s post is fine. Indeed the very locution appears “several times on Google”: Here’s “over 2000 instances”:*+themselves%22&btnG=Search of people using “themselves” as bound by “everyone”. I’m deferring to the wisdom of crowds on this one.


nick 08.20.04 at 8:03 am

Sorry, but usage by a famous writer does not constitute correctness.

Sorry, but that definition of ‘correctness’ is a grammatical fiction. Especially to anyone who’s read Saussure.


nick 08.20.04 at 8:13 am

But I’m guessing that at least a few people have heard of the ungendered ‘spivak’ pronouns (coined by Michael Spivak) which became popular in MOOs and similar environments.

Neologisms don’t usually work to correct perceived grammatical anomalies, though: instead, ‘what you’ve got’ is moulded to fit.


bad Jim 08.20.04 at 8:39 am

Any sentence can be reworded, however awkwardly, to eliminate the gender difficulty:

The person we hire next will be able to choose which course to teach.

Either the husband or the wife has comitted perjury.

Was it your father or your mother who broke a leg on a ski trip?

Let me also testify, from personal experience, that, if you’re handcuffed behind your back, it’s not all that difficult to “slip your cuffs”, bringing them under your heels and over your knees to a point where you can use your hands again.


Tom - Daai Tou Laam 08.20.04 at 8:42 am

Cool to learn that Hungarian has ungendered pronouns. Chinese is the same.

German on the other hand has three genders, masculine feminine and neuter. And a young woman is neuter instead of feminine.


Sharif 08.20.04 at 9:28 am

1. *Everyone should look at themself in the mirror once a day.

2. *Everyone should look at themselves in the mirror once a day.


What is wrong with :

3.) Everyone should at oneself in the mirror once a day.



sharif 08.20.04 at 9:31 am

aside from the fact I forgot to type “look”.


Scott Martens 08.20.04 at 9:32 am

I’ve always prefered “dude or dudette”, just to point to the silliness of the problem. I use they about 50% of the time and he or she for most of the rest of the time. There are situations where they seems too awkward.

For what’s left, I use the feminine and figure God’s a big girl, so she can take it.

Tom, spoken Chinese has gender neutral pronouns – or at least the official Mandarin I learned in school does. In print, however, the characters for “he”, “she” and “it” are different. The nominal standard is the inclusive “he”, except I’m told young children sometimes get “it”.


reuben 08.20.04 at 10:06 am


And just when I thought you were offering us room for experimentation…


Keith M Ellis 08.20.04 at 11:27 am

These days, I’m always a little amazed when people are very un-self-aware that their assertions involve an assumption of prescriptivism/descriptivism that is deeply contestable.

It’s amazingly naive. It’s as if someone asserted “Adultery is wrong because God told Moses that it’s wrong” or “There is no ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ because there is no God.” Almost no one here would assert either of these things because almost everyone here is well aware that the underlying assumptions are deeply contestable. Yet, about language usage, such naive assertions are common among people I, at least, expect to know better.


David Velleman 08.20.04 at 12:33 pm

Can anyone explain to me why the two examples offered by Pullum are unacceptable? They sound just fine to me. I venture to say that they will sound fine to anyone whose ears have not become gender-obsessed. I doubt whether most people would even blink if hearing either sentence in daily conversation.
In fact, “Either the husband or the wife has perjured himself” is the only way to say what is meant here without awkwardness or confusion. “Either the husband or the wife has perjured themselves” makes it sound as if the statement of one party has somehow made both of them guilty of perjury. Should we say instead “Either the husband or the wife has perjured himself or herself”? Ugh!
This whole style of argument is questionable in any case. How can two sentences prove anything about the language? Their value as evidence must rest on an assumption that the language is rigorously consistent, in the sense that constructions as individuated by grammarians are permissible everywhere if permissible anywhere.


Aeon Skoble 08.20.04 at 1:33 pm

“They” is plural. Address the gender issue by rewriting the sentence if necessary.


Keith Gaughan 08.20.04 at 2:00 pm

Time to set a few things straight:

‘He’ as an epicine pronoun:

‘They’ as a singular epicine pronoun:

BTW, ‘they’, ‘their’ and ‘them’ came from Norse, as a matter of point.

Anybody who thinks the use of ‘they’ as a singular should really study linguistics for a while. Finno-Ugric languages (Hungarian, Estonian and Finnish) get by quite well without a distinction between genders. Latin and Greek distinguish between interrogative and relative pronouns, yet in English the lack of distinction rarely causes a problem. There are languages like Russian and Latin that don’t have indefinite or definite articles. And there are languages that get by with just three personal pronouns. And don’t forget that English doesn’t distinguish between the plural and singular second person, so how would another lack for the third cause problems?

Contrary to the prescriptivist idea that lacking such distinction in langauges will cause problems, each of the languages I’ve mentioned have ways of resolving any such problems when they arise, through the use of context, adverbs, etc.

To screw about with what humpty dumpty said: A word means what I want it to mean, as long as everybody else can understand it.


a-ro 08.20.04 at 2:12 pm

Eventually the use of “his or her” and “he or she” might usefully be shortened into its own word:

his or her = hizzer
he or she = heshe
him or her = himmer

It adds an extra syllable, but not as many as including both single-sylable pronouns and the word “or”. As with any proposal to create new words to solve this problem, there is the fact that these additions to the lexicon sound awkward. But I’m not proposing that they be suddenly addopted as the new standard and imposed from above. I’m saying that something like this might occur organically over time as people get used to saying “his or her” every time they mean “gender neutral singular posessive”, and get lazy and start saying “his/her”, then “hizzer”.

If the great vowell shift can happen in English, then this could happen to solve the problem.


Brian Weatherson 08.20.04 at 2:51 pm

As far as I can tell, the only responses I’ve got to the challenge of what makes “they” plural have been either straight out repititions of the claim (and repeating something doesn’t make it right, nor does repeating it again) and appeals to experts. I’m not sure who’s on the Bartleby’s expert panel that Keith refers to, but I’ll note that “Language Log”:, which is where this thread started, has a lot more distinguished linguists than we’re going to find here. In any case, if Bartleby’s are going to refer to _the typical student_ as a singular noun I’m certainly not going to take what they say very seriously. (Just what exactly is _the typical student_ meant to denote. A student with 1.5 parents?)

If we’re just comparing experts at this point, I’ll note that “this rather magisterial book”: approves of singular _they_, and I’m pretty sure it was written by people who’ve studied a bit of linguistics.

On David’s point, I thought the Pullum examples were striking for the following reason. Normally I think of examples like (1) as being inappropriate rather than ungrammatical. (Note I didn’t star it.) But Pullum’s examples sounded completely awful, in a way that (1) didn’t. So I’m not _trying_ to beg any questions here. Though I admit I look like I was making a hasty generalisation in saying that no dialects licenced those sentences.

And of course it is an option to simply deny that the language is systematic at this point. But when there is a simple systematic explanation of the data (or at least the data as it appears to me) I don’t know why I should buy in to unsystematic explanations.


Anthony 08.20.04 at 2:52 pm

David stole my point (well, half of it, anyway). I think Pullum’s examples are quite to the point – those are instances where the masculine singular just won’t fly. But to bring back Bob’s point from the beginning of the thread, I think the problem is specific to examples like these rather than all uses of he. Our interest in the person we hire next has nothing to do whatsoever with their gender (one would hope – although I think we do assume that person will ultimately have a gender), whereas the gender of the parent in question is of immediate interest (at least for the purposes of disinguishing which parent we’re talking about).

For all that, I still tend towards “they” in my use, and it seems to me harmless to do so when gender is not an issue – but I don’t think we can throw out (1) from Brian’s post on the basis of the other examples.

The “themself” or “themselves” debate seems worth exploring, though – Pullum suggests “themself” as the best fit for his examples. What do people think of these?

1. Everyone thinks of themselves as an individual.
2. Everyone thinks of themself as an individual.
3. Everyone thinks of themselves as individuals.

When I first read Chris’s sentences, I thought the second was obviously right, while the first sounded clunky. Oddly, I find that here, 3 seems obviously right, and both 1 and 2 sound passable but flawed – I’m more inclined towards two. Obviously, 3 could be used in place of either of them, but there is a slight shift in the overall sense – I think it stems from a fairly hazy line drawn between whether “Everyone” is a throng of people or an assembly of unique entities.


Kip Manley 08.20.04 at 2:56 pm

Anyone who insists that “they” is not and cannot be singular has centuries of useage and Languagehat standing against them; if they wish to continue to do so, that’s their own lookout. —Anyone who insists that any sentence can simply be rewritten so as to eliminate the need for a gendered pronoun to refer to an individual of undetermined gender, thus obviating the need to even consider the problem, hasn’t given enough thought to the necessary mellifluosity of prose, and the sheer drudgery of rewriting; so long as they never edit my copy, they may say what they like.

Attempts to craft or graft a gender-neutral singular pronoun for English go back a surprisingly long way. I wrote about them a whiles back. (At the time I was resigned, if a bit snerkily, to the use of “they” as a singular; I’ve since come fully round that corner. If, like most recent converts, I’m a bit of a zealot, well, I’m attempting to temper that.) —I would like to note, however, that any credible attempt to create a full set of pronouns, based on gender, for any grouping which (largely) consists of two genders, needs not three pronouns to get by, but five:

  • male;
  • female;
  • androgynous, or epicene, for those individuals or occasions when one wishes to indicate a mix of both;
  • sexless (“it,” natch);
  • and assuming no gender at all, or non-specific.

That last is necessary for those occasions when it would be inappropriate or unnecessary to refer to a person’s sex (or gender) in the capacity in which one is addressing them: as presidents or police officers, as reporters or handyfolk, as letter carriers or committee chairs.

So on the whole, I think the singular “they” is a fine, fine hack for the problem in question: any discomfort one might feel at tripping over an assumed plural in a singular context is much, much less than the general discomfort of assuming the general, usual gender to always be one and never the other. Genderless “he” is far kludgier than singular “they.”


eszter 08.20.04 at 3:25 pm

When a superior who has the authority to require changes to your writing says that “they” doesn’t work then it’s hard to just keep using it.

or at least the data as it appears to me (Brian)

Since we’re on a language thread, I thought I’d mention that use of data as singular is another language issue with plenty o’ disagreement, it seems. I would’ve preferred to read or at least the data as they appear to me.


David Velleman 08.20.04 at 3:41 pm

“Someone who is considering whether to enter into a contract with others should take careful stock of their financial resources.”

What is the antecedent of possessive pronoun?


Tamar 08.20.04 at 4:17 pm

Edith Nesbitt (the 19th century children’s author) deals with this problem in a striking way. Here’s a typical passage, referring to the actions of the four children in the story (two boys and two girls): “Everyone now turned out its pockets” or, again, “everyone ate as much as it possibly could.”

The passages in question come from a book orignally published in 1902. (Full disclosure: the title of the book is “Five Children and It” — but the “It” in the title refers to the sand fairy that the children discover, not to the pronoun that the author uses to co-refer with “everyone.”) I haven’t looked to see how, eg, CS Lewis deals with this issue in the Narnia books (where there are also two boys and two girls), but I don’t remember being struck by anything like this when I read those aloud last year. In fact, I can’t off-hand think of anyone other than Nisbett who uses this “solution.” Does anyone know of other examples?


Tamar 08.20.04 at 4:25 pm

Sorry — I see that wolfangel already noted E. Nesbitt’s practice in his above: I should have read the comments more closely.

In penance, here’s a song that addresses the issue. It is sung to the tune of “Adon Olam.” (Which tune to Adon Olam? When the song scans right, you’ve got the right tune.) I’m afraid it presupposes a bit of knowledge of contemporary Judaism. Apologies to those who find it cryptic.

In days of yore, when God was King
The pronoun choice on Yom Kippur was no big thing
But then one day, with great surprise
Mankind observed that humankind was twice its size

We can’t use “he;” we can’t use “she”
We can’t use “it;” we can’t use “thee”
The question is: what can we use?
We have to find a way to speak of God–we’re Jews!

The old guard said: “Let’s just use ‘Lord’”
The young guard went to pose the question to the Board
The Board said: “What? You’re asking us?
Go bug the Rabbi —he’s the one who made a fuss.”


The children said: “We know the rule
We learned it back in Gimel Class at Hebrew School
It’s aleph bet, not A, B, C…
And ‘mi’ is ‘who’ and ‘hu’ is ‘he’ and ‘hee’ is ‘she’”


The Rabbi said: “Now don’t you fret,
I’ll go and post the problem on the Internet!”
And so he did. Here’s God’s reply:
“When I am speaking of myself I just use ‘I.’”


Sebastian Holsclaw 08.20.04 at 4:25 pm

“Here’s over 2000 instances of people using “themselves” as bound by “everyone”. I’m deferring to the wisdom of crowds on this one.”

If circa 2000 is all you can find on google, the wisdom of crowds is probably ruling against it.


Brian Weatherson 08.20.04 at 4:39 pm

Well 2000 may not seem like much, but there’s under 700 for “everyone should * himself”:*+himself%22&btnG=Search and only 9 for “everyone should * herself”:*+herself%22&btnG=Search so I think the crowd is with _themselves_ as being at least acceptable here.

Of course on this point there’s no universalising claim to be made. If someone wants to speak a dialect of English on which ‘their’ can only be a plural, that’s their choice. All I’m claiming is that there’s a perfectly good dialect of English (the one spoken by Shakespeare, Wilde etc) in which this rule does not hold.


Jeff R. 08.20.04 at 4:40 pm

David Velleman: I’d have to say that the antecedent of ‘their’ is naturally ‘others’. To make it refer to ‘someone’, disambiguate with ‘their own’.

Also, try “Either the husband or the wife has committed perjury.”


Ophelia Benson 08.20.04 at 4:57 pm

I was going to make the E. Nesbit point but two people got there first. I’m pleased to see other people have noticed. Her usage always makes me laugh a good deal. ‘Everyone took off its coat,’ oh chortle chortle.

I have a friend who’s a linguist, and gets very annoyed at the problem Eszter refers to. She (m’friend) knows perfectly well that ‘they’ can be a singular – but she also knows that a lot of people don’t know that and will think she is silly or ignorant or both if she uses it that way in writing – so she doesn’t – which annoys her. Kind of damned if you do damned if you don’t sort of thing.

(It is true about the usual ability to re-cast the sentence though. Speaking as an editor, I usually can do that in such a way that the seams don’t show.)


Brian Weatherson 08.20.04 at 5:03 pm

One more Google point. There are over 30000 hits for “Everyone should * their”:*+their%22&btnG=Google+Search. So there are a lot of people using _their_ this way. As David points out, there are some costs to this. Giving _their_ fewer acceptable uses creates fewer ambiguities, but I think these can be managed in practice. (By the way, I’d naturally read David’s sentence as having _their_ bound by _someone_, but given that some people insist that _they_ is plural, perhaps I should be more careful about my reading in future.)


paul 08.20.04 at 6:11 pm

Let me come in on Kip Manley’s side, with a citation from the OED, for “they, pers. pron.” at

2. Often used in reference to a singular noun made universal by every, any, no, etc., or applicable to one of either sex (= ‘he or she’).
See Jespersen Progress in Lang. §24.

1526 Pilgr. Perf. (W. de W. 1531) 163b, Yf..a psalme scape ony persone, or a lesson, or else yt they omyt one verse or twayne. 1535 FISHER Ways perf. Relig. ix. Wks. (1876) 383 He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues. 1749 FIELDING Tom Jones VIII. xi, Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it. 1759 CHESTERFIELD Lett. IV. ccclv. 170 If a person is born of a..gloomy temper..they cannot help it. 1835 WHEWELL in Life (1881) 173 Nobody can deprive us of the Church, if they would. 1858 BAGEHOT Lit. Stud. (1879) II. 206 Nobody fancies for a moment that they are reading about anything beyond the pale of ordinary propriety. 1866 RUSKIN Crown Wild Olives §38 (1873) 44 Now, nobody does anything well that they cannot help doing. 1874 [see THEMSELVES 5].

The citations begin in 1526, so singular “they” is certainly not in the spirit of a neologism. Although, as my father once responded to another OED citation, “They didn’t know how to spell back then, either,” I suspect that hoary usage comes as close to making something correct as anything can.


paul 08.20.04 at 6:16 pm

I probably should have closed my last sentence with the phrase, “hoary usage comes as close anything can to making something correct as.


paul 08.20.04 at 6:34 pm

Oops. Of course, I meant, “I probably should have closed my last sentence with the phrase, “hoary usage comes as close as anything can to making something correct.


eszter 08.20.04 at 8:56 pm

Tamar, thanks for posting that song, I love it! Do you know of others like it?


Jamie 08.21.04 at 1:12 am

Here are a couple of nice, old, utterly respectable citations of ‘themselves’ with ‘everyone’ as antecedent. I got them from the OED.

1600 SHAKES. Lucr. 125 Euery one to rest themselues [ed. 1594 himselfe] betake.

1874 G. W. DASENT Half a Life 3 Every one likes to keep it to themselves as long as they can.


Antoni Jaume 08.21.04 at 1:58 am

Not being an English native speaker my take is to use “it” when refering to functional referents (“The president spoke yesterday, it said that…”), however I never felt “they/them” unfitting.



Tamar 08.21.04 at 3:13 am

“Tamar, thanks for posting that song, I love it! Do you know of others like it?”

Actually, it’s part of a series that I wrote in honor of my father’s retirement. (He was a congregational rabbi for 35 years.) I’m afraid the rest are a bit too “insidery” for public posting.

Apropos the Nesbitt: interestingly, some of her *characters* use “their” as a gender-ambiguous pronoun,whereas others use “it.” For example, in the “No Wings” chapter of *Five Chidren and It*, the Vicar and his wife say Nisbetty things like: “There’s a dangerous lunatic in the church and you must go immediately and catch it.” But three pages later, Anthea (one of the children), upon being asked whether someone else has played a role in their recent misadventure, replies: “Yes…but it wasn’t their fault.” (Even more interestingly, the “they” whose fault it wasn’t is the Psammead itself — who is, of course, the “It” of the title.)

(Nothing turns on this, of course: I include it only to make Ophelia chortle.)


Ophelia Benson 08.21.04 at 3:25 am

And I am, too.


nnyhav 08.21.04 at 3:25 am

How many prescriptivists does it take to change a pronoun?


Keith Gaughan 08.21.04 at 5:23 am

Me? Appeal to experts? Not on this, that’s for sure.

I was appealing to descriptivism: ‘they’ is used as singular and plural in the vernacular, therefore it is both singular and plural. It’s used that way in my dialect and in the dialects of many of the writers I’ve read.

It’s been in common use since at least early Modern English, and the only reasons for the prohibition against it are presciptivist nonsense from people who think English should be Latin, and those who think it makes English vague, conveniently forgetting that English is vague anyway and that there’s one glaring example of the same ‘vagueness’ in pronouns anyway: you. (A vagueness that doesn’t crop up in my dialect: we use the archaic ‘ye’).

Sure, you can avoid its use to prevent people who managed to get prescriptivist worms burrowing through their brain from getting upset for no good reason, but that just because they say something’s so doesn’t make it so. The pronoun has a long and well-documented history as being both singular and plural.

That is a fact, so I concur with Kip, Orphelia and Paul on this one.

Now, how about a debate on proper punctuation, in particular the comma and semicolon… ;-)


Jeffrey Kramer 08.21.04 at 1:55 pm

Thai is another language with gender-neutral third-person pronouns. It also uses terms for “sibling” which indicate whether the person is older (“Pee”) or younger (“Nang”) than the speaker, but not whether it’s a brother or a sister.


Gar Lipow 08.21.04 at 6:23 pm

I think the “they” and “their” solution is often a good one. But there are places where it reads or sounds a bit akward, and you do run into authority figures who may veto on it.

As a backup, may I suggest the solution Shaw used in the “Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism”, where he used “she” and “her” as neutral pronouns referring to both genders. No awkward singular plural confusion. And certainly someone who sees no gender bias in using “he” to refer to both men and woman has no grounds to object to the use of “she” for the same purpose.


Mika Luoma-aho 08.21.04 at 8:58 pm

Indeed, Finnish is one of the languages that has only one philological gender: `hän’.

Having lived in Britain for a few years I had some trouble making a distinction between `he’ and `she’, especially when I did not have time to think what was it that I had to say — which was relatively often, to be honest. (Being male and in a hurry, I opted for the masculine, of course.)


Keith Gaughan 08.22.04 at 6:24 pm

One interesting thing I’ve noticed after over a year of having Hispanophones as flatmates is that they, despite the fact that the language distinguishes between masculine and feminine, have a tendancy to get the equivalent pronouns mixed up when referring to people.


eszter 08.22.04 at 8:59 pm

Tamar, that series sounds really neat! Well, I’m glad you shared what you were able to.:)


eszter 08.23.04 at 5:37 am

Judith Lorber posted the following on a mailing list, I reproduce it here with permission:

Also see

And the epigraph of my paper, “Dismantling Noah’s Ark,” in Lorber and Farrell, The Social Construction of Gender, (orig pub in Sex Roles in 1986)

“Did she have a boy or a girl?” I asked. “Why do you want to know?” said my
13-year-old (in 1982).

Also —
A society does not have to be organized around gender. Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí points out that the feminist assumption that gender’s salience is universal replicates biological reasoning. Citing Yorùbá’s non-gendered language, she argues that pre-colonial Yorùbá society was not ordered by gender, but by relative age, which determined relationships and hierarchies.
She says:
“Unlike European languages, Yorùbá does not ‘do gender;’ it ‘does seniority’ instead. Thus social categories �C familial and nonfamilial �C do not call attention to the body as English personal names, first-person pronouns, and kinship terms do (the English terms being both gender-specific-body-specific). Seniority is highly relational and situational in that no one is permanently in a senior or junior position; it all depends on who is present in any given situation. Seniority, unlike gender, is only comprehensible as part of relationships. Thus, it is neither rigidly fixated on the body nor dichotomized.”

Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí, “De-confounding Gender: Feminist Theorizing and Western Culture, a Comment on Hawkesworth’s ‘Confounding Gender.'” Signs 23 (1998): 1049-62.
Oyěwùmí, The Invention of Women, p. 42.
Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí, The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997)


wolfangel 08.23.04 at 9:30 pm

I would suspect that people whose first language is a Romance language all have the same issue in reversing the genders.

In English, the possessive is the gender of the possessor. I borrowed it from John, his book vs. I borrowed it from Mary, her book.

In French the possessive is the gender of the possessed. I borrowed it from Mary, his book[m]vs I borrowed it from John, her table[f]. My francophone friends usually get this wrong in English when the possessed is alive — about his friend Maxim and her sister, or his friend Charlotte and his father.

I get this wrong half the time because I use the English system and half because I can’t remember which is the right gender.


Lis Riba 08.24.04 at 6:19 am

If it’s good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me
That’s hardly a fair comparison.
The English language underwent massive changes during the Elizabethan and Jacobean era. Scholarly books point to Shakespeare and the King James Bible as evidence of the move from “he” to “it” as a neuter pronoun.
Shakespeare also uses thee and thou, and I don’t see much call for bringing those back…

Of all the different gender-neutral pronoun schemes, my favorite is sie (pronounced “see” for he/she) and hir (pronounced “hear” for his/her) because they’re so close in pronunciation and spelling to the current gendered standards. Unfortunately, these have fallen somewhat out of favor due to confusion with the German sie.


Keith Gaughan 08.24.04 at 12:56 pm

I would suspect that people whose first language is a Romance language all have the same issue in reversing the genders.

That’s the thing: I know Francophones, Italians, Lusophones, Catalunians, though no Romanians, and none of them seem to have the difficulties I mentioned, even if their english isn’t all that strong.

And while such errors might be understandable in cases where the posessive is used, it’s not really understandable where subject pronouns are concerned. Leaving apart the fact that subject pronouns are still optional in Castillian, that still doesn’t explain the phenomenon. Many of those spaniards I mentioned have expressed the same kind of puzzlement as me as to why they do it.

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