Nathanael Green's Blog

An advertising copywriter, novelist, and freelance writer's brain goo.

5 Reasons to Never Use “he/she” Again.

with 5 comments

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.

Why?

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 …”

4) Precedent.
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.

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Written by Nathanael Green

January 29, 2009 at 8:49 pm

5 Responses

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  1. There’s nothing worse than when someone “corrects” what you wrote by replacing your generic use of “he” with “she” because “he” is somehow sexist, whereas “she” is not. This happened to me once in college, and I spoke to the professor after class to inform her I’d be using “he” because it was perfectly acceptable and didn’t brand me a male chauvinistic pig. (There’s plenty of other evidence of that.)

    The “he/she” construction is annoying to speak and just as annoying to hear spoken. And the “he and she” is just as bad.

    People need to chill out when it comes to language. One of these days, I’m going to write a post about how ridiculous we are (especially Americans) when it comes to profanity. Death, dismemberment, and other general mayhem are fine for a PG-13 movie, but if someone utters the “F” word more than once, it gets an R rating. Asinine.

    Brian O'Rourke

    January 29, 2009 at 11:00 pm

    • I’m with you, Brian. The only thing worse than “he or she” is “s/he.” How the crap are we supposed to pronounce that?

      And I do find it funny how some people view using “he” as sexist and instead use “she” exclusively. Um … ?

      Politically correct speak is certainly on my list of future posts for a number of reasons. But you’ll have to wait for the post to find out what they are. (Wait … you probably have already heard my tirade a number of times.)

      -Nate

      Nathanael Green

      January 30, 2009 at 2:47 pm

  2. Nate,

    I’m sure I’ve heard your pc rants before, but the rest of the world needs to as well.

    B

    Brian O'Rourke

    January 30, 2009 at 7:16 pm

  3. Hey Nate,

    Thanks for the entertaining post. I like they as well, but unfortunately no option in English is quite perfect. Varying he and she as you suggested, does have a lot of merit, but like the clunky he or she it tends to be ostentatious even though the writer is trying to bury the issue. (When you’re reading about a sexless “teacher,” for instance, you’re not going to gloss over any sudden gender qualifications without interpreting them at least briefly.)

    English (or should I say a few hopeless crusaders) had a brief stint with the neutral 3P pronoun thon. It was a nice try, but not even the most influential linguist can modify our language’s rigid set of grammatical words. Besides, “Thon likes thonself” is just too socially awkward to fit in.

    Here’s the Wikipedia link to the Thon article.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thon_/pronoun/

    Kevin Dickinson

    October 29, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    • Kevin,

      Thanks for the link.

      I remember a push for gender-neutral pronoun a little while back, and it seems to go in cycles. Sometimes people get their panties in a bunch about it, and you get thon or hir for a little while, but it’s so artificial that it never really takes hold.

      Even the more natural, British one doesn’t seem to want to take hold in America, though even that has its limitations.

      Nathanael Green

      November 1, 2009 at 9:58 pm


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