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He, She, It and They

Using 'They' in the Singular

Dr. Goodword (Robert Beard, PhD, Linguistics)


Toward the end of the last century many feminists tried to resolve the politico-economic inequities between sexes by changing the way we speak. In that pursuit, a good deal of time was expended on a discussion of the default (unmarked) personal pronoun he and its use in English.

Many feminists demanded to know why the masculine pronoun and not the feminine (she) was the default pronoun, as though this were a political rather than a grammatical question. Various writers replaced he with she, used awkward concoctions like s/he, hiser, or compounds like he or she. No one was happy with any of these solutions.

Other Languages

In other Germanic (Romance, Slavic, and other) languages the terms "masculine" and "feminine" are grammatical, not political or even gender terms. A feminine word in French, German, Russian, Polish and other Indo-European languages is a word that belongs to a lexical class that linguists of the past misguidedly called "feminine" because there was a tendency for words referring to females to appear in it. But the feminine lexical class contains far more words referring to inanimate objects, states, and processes than that refer to females.

The word for table in French (la table) is just as feminine as the word for woman (la femme) while the German word for table (der Tisch) is masculine for no reason, just lexical fortuity. The equivalent of English it in referring to la table would be French elle "she" and the pronoun corresponding to German der Tisch is er "he". (In fact, the German word for "girl", das Mädchen, is neuter!)

The English Difference

English differs from most Indo-European languages in that it has lost grammatical gender on its nouns but but has retained the pronouns he, she, it, and they. Today the personal pronouns are used semantically, not grammatically, so that she refers mostly to females (and ships) while he refers mostly to males

However, in situations where gender doesn't matter or is unknown, we have to choose between he and she and he is the default pronoun for referring to people when gender is unknown in all Indo-European languages: "Not everyone can attend any school he can afford". The use of he as a default pronoun has nothing to do with politics or the politico-economic status of women any more than it governs the status of men. Rather, it was introduced in perhaps the most popular English grammar of all times, Anne Fisher's A New Grammar (1745). What was used in English as the default asexual, nongendered pronoun? They.

The Impersonal Pronoun 'They'

"But they is plural and cannot be used to with a singular antecedent," I already hear someone grumble. "I hate it when people misuse a plural pronoun for a singular one." In fact, all the great English writers were comfortable with this usage from Chaucer on to Anne Fisher and even after her. Canonical writers like Byron, Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, Trollope, and many others have had no problem with it at all. But then, neither does the majority of the ordinary speakers of the language.

In point of fact, they is a multifunctional pronoun. Many function words are multifunctional. Before may be a preposition (before the war), an adverb (I've never seen her before), and a conjunction (I spoke with her once before I left the party). They has a personal function plus an impersonal function just like you in "You never know". In this case you does not refer to "you" but to anyone. Can it be 2nd and 3rd person at the same time?

The impersonal you is a perfect analogy to they in, "They told me not to lick stamps at the post office." In this sentence, only one person may have told you not to lick stamps which means the antecedent of they is be singular. The point is, however, it doesn't matter how many are involved or what their gender is for they in this instance is impersonal—not feminine, not masculine, not singular, not plural.

Multifunctional words like you, they, and before are commonplace in all languages. Why should the multifunctionality of they concern us? It shouldn't.


In summary, then, English has a perfectly good impersonal pronoun that obviates the choice between he and she. The fact that this alternative (they) is multifunctional does not distinguish it from other grammatical function words in this or any other language. Go with your instincts on this one; the issue isn't political.

Dr. Goodword
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