5 Reasons to Never Use “he/she” Again.
I can’t stand the phrase “he or she.”
You know what I’m talking about. We used to say “he” or “they” to talk about a person whose gender was unknown, but now this often shows up as “he/she” or “his or her” and no matter what form it takes, it makes me cringe.
1) It sounds silly.
It makes your writing awkward and stilted. We want to communicate clearly and effectively, right? So why muddy it?
2) It doesn’t make people less sexist.
Eliminating sexism is a great thing. But saying “he or she” doesn’t do that.
I think often when people force this phrase into their writing, they’re making an effort to show that they’re not sexist. And that reminds me of a Margaret Thatcher quote: “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”
By trying to show the world how unbiased you are, aren’t you drawing more attention to inequality? Let’s stop trying to sound less sexist and just be so.
3) There’s an easy way around it.
You can always just use “he” though, sexist arguments aside, it can also be quite confusing as you can see from the first few examples in this article.
There’s a lot of support for using a variation of the plural pronoun “they,” even when it’s preceded by a singular noun. (A teacher [singular] instructs their pupils.”)
Or if you’re being more formal, rewrite your sentence to make everything plural. Instead of “A teacher instructs their …” change it to “Teachers [plural] instruct their …”
If you read my previous post on descriptive grammar, you know I’m not a language purist. But English has a fairly established, while rocky, history of using “he” as a generic as you can see here and here.
Plus, lots of languages accept masculine pronouns as the generic because it’s simple, clear and expedient. Latin’s alumni is either a group of men, or a group of both men and women. Women alone would be alumnae. German uses the masculine form of the word for friends, Freunde, for a group of mixed or unknown genders, while a group of only female friends would be Freundinen.
5) It makes communicating harder.
Not only are we adding words and odd constructions to our sentences, but we’re also adding confusion. No one really knows what the rules are regarding this, so we stumble over it.
“Should I use ‘he/she’ to avoid offending someone? Should I use ‘they’ even when the subject is singular? Can I just use ‘she’?”
One Grammar Girl episode dealt with this topic, and to summarize: there’s no real standard. And to me, that vagueness makes it harder for people to communicate.
So my recommendation?
I usually use “they.” It’s easier, shorter, and everyone knows what you’re talking about.
And if you don’t like that, you can still sprinkle your sentences with a “she” here and a “he” there. But be careful with using both “he” and “she” to be clear so as to not confuse your readers.
But I’d still advocate for “they.” And if you use it and someone gives you crap about it, tell them that Shakespeare and Jane Austin used it too.