I’m tired of the he/she gender debate. Why hasn’t anyone come up with a pronoun that means “she OR he”? Wouldn’t that be easier?
Well, people have. But they don’t tend to stick.
We’ve had dozens of contenders for “he or she” pronoun in English, from “ne” to ”thon” to “po” to “xe.” If they last more than six months, they’re lucky, but most of us haven’t heard of any of ‘em.
It’s tough to get a new pronoun into the language, because pronouns are what we in the biz call a closed class. Open classes are those lexical categories that gain new members easily, like nouns, verbs, and adjectives. They’re the words that give meaning to the sentence, the content words. We pick these up all the time – most entrants for any kind of “Word of the Year” contest will be one of these three, from “googling” to “selfie.”*
But closed classes are more exclusive. We don’t tend to add to our stock of prepositions or conjunctions. Closed-class words are not the bits we play around with; instead, they’re function words, grammar words, the rubber bands we use to hold a sentence together. It’s not impossible for a word to join a closed class (“slash”!), but it’s rare. And for pronouns in particular, well, “hen” has shown in Sweden that an invented pronoun can work its way into a language, but it’s not the norm.
So how do we fill in the blank of a sentence like “Someone left ____ kumquats here”? “Someone” is a singular, indefinite pronoun, and its anaphor (the word in the blank that refers back to it) should be another singular, indefinite pronoun. But we don’t have a singular indefinite pronoun, and it looks like we’re not interested in picking one up. So, like punctuation, we’ll need to work with the pronouns we already have.
Which means we have a choice: change the singular, or change the indefinite. Some people use a plural indefinite pronoun, “they.” And some plumb for a singular definite pronoun, “he.” Linguistically, grammatically, it doesn’t matter — they’re just pronouns doing a job. But socially, the difference is huge. One of these pronouns has a long, storied history in English; the other is an awkward recent innovation, faddish, even damaging.
Really, can anyone take an upstart like “he” seriously?
Yeah, singular “they” is old. Like, Chaucer old:
“And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, / They wol come up…” — The Pardoner’s Prologue
Shakespeare, Austin, Carroll, Wilde, Orwell, you name it, everyone’s been using singular “they” for nigh on a thousand years. And there have been zero problems with this. Nada. Totally unconscious, worry-free, completely natural. “Someone left their kumquats here”? We were all cool with this sentence.
Enter the fad. That frequent nefarious shadow conspiracy of English, 18th-century grammarians, preferred “he” as a way of designating all of humanity. They just hated the lack of number agreement in a “someone — they” construction, and pushed for lack of gender agreement instead. Hence “Someone left his kumquats here,” regardless of whether there’s reason to think that the kumquat-abandoner was a guy. And this pronoun kerfuffle became one of the cornerstones of their enduring legacy: a lingering awkwardness among regular English-users, who were taught these unreasonable rules in high school and blame themselves for not using them, rather than blaming the rules for being unnatural and dumb (see also: splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions).
This generic “he” trend made its way into grammar books and style manuals, though many an author wisely ignored its ignoble presence. Singular “they” continued to have wide currency in speech and writing, and since about the 1970s has been slowly reclaiming “grammatically correct” status among the Grammar Illuminati (Gralluminati?). Yep, in an astonishing coincidence, as the status of women in society has risen, the use of the male pronoun to refer to everybody has dropped.
What’s odd is that many modern writers figure that “they” is the newcomer, and hate it for that. That’s why singular “they” is the go-to example for the Recency Effect: assuming that something you notice in language is a new change, worthy of get-off-my-lawn-you-kids crotchetiness. And in these writers I often see that vestigial snubbing, because “they” is also used for plurals. Well, yeah. Sure it is. And “he” is also used for sentences with specific dudes. “They” is great for general, unspecified, or unknown singulars. It has an important job, and does it well.
Consider this quote via Geoffrey Pullum: “I think if someone in my class was pregnant I would be sympathetic to them.” I’m pretty sure we’re referring to an unspecified woman here — but the indefiniteness trumps the gender, and “them” is more natural than “her.”
I guess I should spare a moment for “he or she,” as in “Someone left his or her kumquats here.” This is fine in small doses, but it gets cumbersome quickly. If someone wants to make a complex sentence, he or she needs to ask himself or herself if his or her use of this construction will make his or her sentence difficult for readers to follow. This is not an issue with singular “they.” It’s clear, it’s concise, it’s got a storied lineage – people, I’m calling this problem solved.
And if someone out there doesn’t like that, they will just have to deal.
The Language Nerd
*Which is why ADS’s choice of “because” for last year was so fascinating.
P.S.: There is another area where gendered pronouns make trouble, and in this one “they” really falls down on the job: referencing people who don’t identify as either male or female. “Robin left their kumquats,” with “their” referring back to “Robin,” is not a natural construction like “someone — their” is. That’s probably why this is the one area in English where invented pronouns, mostly “ze” and “xe,” have made inroads. But to be fair to “they,” this usage is completely different. “They” is dandy for “either male or female or other,” it just doesn’t cut it for “not identifying as either male or female, but specifically other.”
Got a language question? Ask the Language Nerd! email@example.com
Twitter @AskTheLeague / facebook.com/asktheleagueofnerds
This site evaluates current invented pronouns, and there’s a list of historical ones here. Plus way, waaay more discussion of “they” here. Geoffrey Pullum collects interesting uses. And more detail on the lengthy, twisting history of English pronouns in this lovely post by Gretchen McCulloch.