Photo of a person jumping off a bridge into water

He, She, and They

Update: For what it’s worth, I disagree with aspects of this post now and how I wrote it at the time. While I still despise the construct “he (or she)”, I now think that addressing the symptoms of the larger problem that are present in the language can help change future behavior. Children pick up on the subtle cues we leave for them in how we behave and how we speak, and model their own lives and behaviors after them. We can’t fix the underlying problem by treating the symptoms, but we can help the treatment work faster and alleviate a lot of pain and suffering in the mean time; that seems like something worth doing. I will try to be more conscious about this in my own life and work. Thank you for reading, and I am sorry for any offense this post may have caused.

While reading recently, I became disappointed that the author of my book chose to use the bracketed “[or she]” after every use of the word “he” when referring to a scientist. While I applaud the authors decision to consciously be gender equal (though I don’t necessarily think it’s wrong to gravitate towards using the pronoun for ones own gender), the phrasing “he [or she]” strikes me as unnecessary and ugly. It breaks up the text and requires a lot of extra words to use it consistently. I’ve heard others make this argument, and propose as a solution the addition of new words to the English language to serve as neuter pronouns (‘Xe’ comes to mind); this is stupid (full-stop). Not only does this corrupt the organic growth of the language, but it adds a neuter gender to a language which (generally speaking) has none — English grammar has enough anomalies without intentionally introducing more.

Recently, some style guides have begun using ‘they’ as a singular, neuter pronoun. This strikes me as a more logical approach. It’s already neuter (by virtue of being plural in a language without gender), so it doesn’t artificially have to be made so and its use in style guides is an indicator that it’s finally moving (back) out of the descriptive grammar of normal people, and into the prescriptive grammar of pedants, high school English teachers, and the occasional well meaning but mislead editor.

Though I suspect singular they is the trend that will stick around and be used in the future, I propose (for the present) that if we can’t agree on ‘they’ we should do the following: Use ‘he’ and get the hell over it. Like it or not, ‘he’ is both the masculine and the neuter form in the English language. It may be a historical by product of a patriarchal and often sexist society, but these days it’s just a historical oddity which can be safely laughed at and ignored. One could almost argue that, contrary to popular opinion its use does not demote femininity to a second class citizen, but instead emasculates males by making their gender serve as the neuter form (not that I would argue this, having better things to worry about).

There are real problems in the world — let’s solve them and let the symptoms in the language heal over time instead of endlessly complaining and treating the symptoms instead of the disease. Languages reflect the thought processes and culture of the people that speak them. Making the language gender neutral will not make our society gender equal, so let’s let the language evolve with the culture over time, and stop complaining or wasting words by writing silly things like “[or she]“.

EDIT: I should also clarify that I am certainly not against using ‘she’ and just assuming that it should be obvious that it’s gender neutral if you identify more with that gender. Just pick one and be consistent in your work.