“He or She” No More: Adopting a Singular “They” to Improve Both Readability and Inclusiveness
After years of adhering to the rules of various books and style-guides that prohibit (in most cases) the use of the word “they” when referring to a single person, I have chosen to adopt what such guides consider to be a strictly plural pronoun to also serve in a singular, gender-agnostic, and gender-neutral context.
The singular “they” has existed in some contexts for centuries, and, I believe that utilizing “they” instead of “him or her,” and “their” instead of “her or his,” not only best reflects the English language as it is currently spoken, written, and understood, but also enhances the readability and inclusiveness of my writing, both of which I consider to be of great importance.
In order to survive and flourish, languages must be in a constant state of flux; like species of living beings, they either evolve over time or become extinct. As such, generation after generation of speakers, writers, and linguists have adopted numerous appropriate changes to grammar and style not necessarily to correct previously-existent deficiencies, but rather to adapt languages so that the languages can continue thriving in an ever-changing world.
Ironically, the English speaking world might have avoided many uncomfortable situations and points of contention, and not have been forced to expend countless hours on unnecessary, emotionally-draining debates, had we simply never adopted gender-specific pronouns in the first place. There is no intrinsic need to have gender-specific words like “he” and “she” rather than a single word to denote a human being (regardless of gender) in the third person. In fact, English speakers already employ such a tactic when it comes to many non-human entities; unlike in many other languages in which every object is classified for grammatical purposes as being either “male” or “female,” in English, we already use a gender-neutral term (“it”) for both inanimate objects and, in most cases, living beings other than people. And, of course, we already use “they” and “their” to refer to two or more people regardless of the subjects’ genders – a practice that speakers of various other languages might find quite strange.
History gave us “he” and “she”, as well as “his” and “her” – but, perhaps, in an ideal world, we might have been better off if the type of gender neutrality we embed in “it” an “its” had also historically been employed when referring to individual human beings in the third person. And while we may not have such a tradition, languages do evolve over time; once “they” and “their” have become near universally accepted as being usable as both singular and plural terms, perhaps we should render obsolete our gender-specific alternatives (including he/him/she/her), by removing the truly unnecessary reference to gender and simply using “they” and “their” for all people. Changing the meaning of either “he” or “she” to be gender neutral, and eliminating use of the other term, would accomplish essentially the same, as would introducing new gender-neutral words. Obviously, I cannot effectuate such a change on my own, so, in order not to cause confusion, unless such a change becomes commonplace, I will continue utilizing in my writing the gender-specific pronouns as they are in common use today.
Thomas Jefferson would likely have found various aspects of today’s written and spoken English to be quite unusual; at the same time, I have little doubt that the author of our nation’s Declaration of Independence would be shocked and immensely proud to see how successful and dominant American English, in its present, evolved form, has become in so many areas of human communication and culture.