Check Your Pronoun

I first read a paper that included “she” as a neutral pronoun early on in my graduate studies. I remember staring at the sentence and then going back to the beginning of the paragraph to check if I had missed a reference to a specific person. I hadn’t. I considered that maybe it was a typo. But then it appeared again in a different paragraph. I realised then that this was a deliberate move. I have since read other texts that use “she/her” to denote an individual in general and have witnessed my professors and other scholars use it, too.

It turns out that the purpose of using a feminine pronoun in this way was to elicit a reaction similar to mine—to shake the reader out of complacency, challenge assumptions, and offer a glimpse into a world where “she” is the default pronoun. The neutral “she/her” pronoun throws a curveball at the reader—why does “she” seem wrong as opposed to “he”? Referring to a person (scholar, engineer, student, or whoever is being referred to) as a “he” rather than a “she” is not only grossly inaccurate statistically but also speaks of our cultures’ hidden misogynies.

Moving towards gender-neutral language is particularly important in the humanities and social sciences, which intend to critically engage with and discuss culture and society. Indeed, this intention would be hindered by obvious biases in language. Over the last few decades, studies have noted a rise in the use of the female pronoun when referring to females (which has otherwise been underrepresented compared to the male pronoun); this increase has been credited to women’s growth in status and literary production during this time. However, the use of the feminine pronoun as gender neutral can be seen as an attempt to deliberately red-flag the biased use of language in academia. Simply changing a word might not seem like it can have much effect; but the truth is, language does make a difference. It shapes how we think about, describe, and understand the world. By its very nature and function, language represents our thoughts and ideas, and, in turn, influences them.

Introducing “she” as a neutral pronoun may seem like a way to disarm the unsuspecting reader but doing so has also normalised it. There are clear gender politics at work in using the feminine to denote the particular and the masculine to denote the general. One important way to unlearn our culture’s regressive thoughts and behaviours is by forming new habits in the way we think, write, and talk about the world. The same goes for linguistic use; how we employ language is a culmination of habit and convention and challenging these is only part of our natural progression.

The deliberate use of “she” as a gender-neutral pronoun was an important and necessary product of the feminist movement of the late 20th century, but we are now further along in reforming our language. Using “she” not only adheres to the gender binary that excludes transgender, genderqueer, and non-binary people, but also forces us to specify a gender when referring to any person at all. There are numerous occasions where a person’s gender is simply irrelevant and using either “he” or “she” forces the writer to be exclusionary.

Discussions on a need for a gender-neutral pronoun in English are not new; Dennis Baron’s post chronicles non-binary pronouns in English that were introduced briefly but never stuck. Today, we have a seemingly ungrammatical but endearingly efficient option—the singular “they”. No stranger in the quest for a gender-free pronoun in the English language, the gender-neutral “they” was first cited in the Oxford English Dictionary around 1375. However, its recent resurgence and acceptance have been attributed to the rise in gender activism, changing conceptions of gender, and a growing acceptance of non-binary people.

The use of the singular “they” has been officially approved by many significant bodies including Associated Press, Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (subject to context). Grammar purists citing grammatical inaccuracy since “they” is plural should keep in mind that grammar changes over time, and choosing the most elegant and efficient word (over the clunkier “he or she”, for instance) is primary. Moreover, the number can easily be discerned from context, and it is hard to think of a sentence in which the use of “they” completely obscures the singularity or plurality of the subject. Purdue OWL effectively addresses the significance of “they”, its official acceptance by academic bodies, and any qualms that writers might have about using it.

So, how does this impact writers and editors?

The singular “they” makes writing more fluid and elegant, and, put simply, makes it easier to address an individual without worrying about their gender. Most times, when referring to a person generally, their gender is unknown and/or irrelevant. This is not simply a move towards political correctness, but a chance to refine academic language to be most inclusive, efficient, and accurate.

The practicality of using the singular “they” is not hard to prove. For instance, the suggested practice to avoid using “he or she” when writing about an individual whose gender is unknown is to make the sentence plural. This seems like unnecessary effort and complicates the use of language without much benefit. Using the singular “they” is surprisingly intuitive; I snuck in a couple of uses in this article that probably didn’t cause any mental combustion. Writers and editors should, of course, check if the style guide they are using approves the use of the singular “they” and, if so, if it is used appropriately.

Official support for the singular “they” signifies a more inclusive, self-aware academia that is created by and for diverse scholars and readers. It forces writers and editors to consider who they are writing for, and how identities are treated within language. While the introduction of “she” as a neutral pronoun gave us some much-needed food for thought on the biases that are built into language, “they” wins on many counts: its greater simplicity, efficiency, and inclusiveness. It posits a more objective, and dare I say, politically relevant language that is able to represent the modern world.