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Pronoun Problems: "He/She," "He or She," or Just Plain "He"?

Categories: Grammar.

Q: Is there a special rule regarding which pronoun to use when talking about a non-specific gender (“he/she,” “he or she,” “he”) or is it completely the writer’s choice? —Jarrett Z.

A: For years, the masculine pronouns (he, his, him) graced most literary work when referring to a non-specific gender. It was an unspoken rule that was sexist and one-sided, but it stood in place for a long time. Being the equal-opportunity pronoun nation that we are today, that rule has changed—or, more precisely, completely disappeared.

Both male and female pro-nouns are acceptable to use when the sex isn’t specified. Therefore it’s OK to write “he/she,” “he or she” or declare one gender to use throughout an article. Many writers will stick with their own biological genes—men tend to use the pronoun “he” while women generally use “she.” Both ways are perfectly fine. The preference lies in the hands of the writer.

Many magazines, including the one you’re reading, take a different approach. Writing “his or her” or “his/her” can start to look clunky, and No. 1 on the Writer’s Digest 10 Commandments list states: “Thou shalt avoid clunkiness at all costs.” Our rule is to alternate pro-nouns: If we say “he” in one paragraph referencing a non-specified gender, the next time an example comes up in the article we’ll use “she.” And so on. Switching back and forth is easy to do, gets rid of the clutter and keeps readers from calling you unwanted names.

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17 Responses to Pronoun Problems: "He/She," "He or She," or Just Plain "He"?

  1. TEST says:

    as asdf sadf sdf sdf

  2. Pat says:

    I’d alternate "he" and "she" between specific hypothetical figures rather than between different paragraphs. I think this can actually help improve clarity in some cases rather than reduce it.

    "If he’s offended by what she says, he must consider several different things before deciding how he will respond to her."
    If I wasn’t alternating pronouns, I’d have to avoid them entirely for that sentence or risk being very confusing. By alternating I can make the interaction between the two hypothetical characters clear while still using pronouns.

    Compare to:
    "If he/she’s offended by what he/she says, he/she must consider several different things before deciding how he/she will respond to him/her."
    Maybe in proper context it will be clearer. I’d probably still need to read it slowly a few times to make sense of it.
    "If the student is offended by what the teacher says, the student must consider several different things before deciding how the student will respond to the teacher."
    That’s perfectly clear, but the clunkiness is why we use pronouns in the first place. It’s also a lot longer than the first sentence; an entire article written like that will be much longer than it should be.

  3. Cinzia says:

    I was taught in a post graduate class that "their" was the substitute for he or she. I like it because it’s easy to read. The alternating between he and she in paragraphs seems a bit "clunky" to me.

  4. Bran MacEachaidh says:

    Interesting point to raise, Brian, and judging by the comments, it’s one that many people feel passionate about from several quarters.

    For myself, I’m happy with one pronoun being used for singular case, whether it be "he" or "she". I don’t much like their/them/they being used for single case, but I don’t believe it’s because I’m hide-bound or have a "fragile ego" (really, what’s with the name-calling? it should have no place in reasonable discussion, surely) — it simply doesn’t work for me, and I rather suspect in cases where these have been used in this way it wasn’t because they were deemed correct so much as for lack of viable alternatives. (But then, I also strongly dislike confusion of plural and singular verb cases, like "one in five think that…" or "the engineering company say they will…", and the loss of distinction between countable and uncountable, as in "I had less than five items in my basket". Perhaps I’m merely a fussbudget. See, I can name-call too!)

    I’m happy too with alternating pronouns, but often writers fail to track which gender they had assigned to a particular example (so they end up with "Each person can have his choice. It’s only fair to her sensibilities.") which may win points on being somehow cosmic and existentialist but does fall short of clarity.

    Perhaps a competition to think up a singular ungendered pronoun would be in order? I know, we’d never be able to legislate the result into use, but it might be a start.

  5. Don Dewsnap says:

    Thank you, John Lister, for pointing out the truth of the matter. The only reason "they" and "their" are "wrong" is because they appear to be plural, not because some higher power declared they must always be plural. Shakespeare used "their" in the singular, as have many other writers down through the years. There is a very thorough discussion on Wikipedia under "singular they" which should shake a few of the hide-bound out of their certainty.

    Only recently have I begun using "their" in my writing, having been among the hide-bound, and surprisingly, when used judiciously, "their" flows very naturally.

    The underlying truth is that the communication is what matters, both the meaning and the tone. Keep your eye on the ball, and the ball is function, not structure.

  6. John Lister says:

    The singular "they" is a matter of style, not grammar. It’s been used for hundreds of years including by many acclaimed writers. English grammar rules (as opposed to style choices) exist to aid clarity and communication, not, as Victorians believed, to make the language into a Latin-style model of impeccable logic regardless of the effects.

    Singular "they" may be flawed, but it’s the least flawed solution to an impossible problem. In the absence of a pronoun for a subject of unknown gender, your choices are:

    always he — offending 50% of the population;
    s/he, he/she or alternating — offending clarity; and
    they — offending mathematics

    While I’m happy to respect the style decision of any editor I work for, given the option I’m satisfied with the latter option.

    I will agree that alternating use can also be effective, as long as it doesn’t cause confusion, for instance if you make repeated references to the same hypothetical subject in an example, in which case you need a consistent solution.

  7. Judy Peterson says:

    This is ridiculous. It has long, long, long been accepted that "he" is inclusive of both he and she. I don’t care what so-called modern rules are–rules that have been initiated because of women feeling put out. Get over it! I’m a woman, and I get so annoyed when I read an article with "he" and "she" alternated or "she" used exclusively that I am unable to finish the article! Again, "he" includes "she," but "she" excludes "he." Sometime I am embarrassed to be a woman. Grow up!

  8. Patt Schwab says:

    Brian , you refer to us as an equal opportunity pronoun nation, yet leave out the easiest resolution to the problem: "S/he."

    The pronunciation, "She-he," has none of the awkwardness of saying  "He or She" or "He/She." Nor does it look "chunky" when written.

    As to the politics of all this, face it, "She" is the all encompassing pronoun. "He," is simply a part of "She!"

  9. Rick says:

    Use "he". Period.

  10. Lynnda Ell says:

    I like your solution, Brian. Switching pronouns every paragraph doesn’t intrude or seem clunky to me. The first time I noticed it, I was amused. Now I seldom see it.

    Nevertheless, I agree with jane doe, above. For the lazy writer (or speaker) the plural pronoun is easier to use and will probably be adopted eventually as acceptable usage.

  11. B C says:

    Sometimes being PC is a huge pain. I’m a woman, but still prefer using ‘he’ most of the time. It’s just easier. And much, much, much better than wrongly substituting they, or their. Let’s do hope that doesn’t become the norm.

  12. We’ve been alternating pronouns like he and she for over 30 years in over a dozen books and countless articles — and nobody has ever complained or reported being confused. I realize that the American male’s ego is so fragile that we’ve got to seek to dominate women by always using the male gender in our writing, but for heaven’s sake guys, let’s get over it and start showing women a little respect (opening doors for them isn’t respect — equal pay for equal work would be genuine respect, for example).

  13. jane doe says:

    For me, the deciding factor is the level of formality in the writing. If I am writing a legal or academic piece, I will go with the more formal "he or she" for generalities, but alternate between the genders when giving examples. For less formal writing, I alternate between the sexes or just find another way to say what I want to say, thus ducking the problem entirely. And if I’m writing dialog, I will consider whether the character speaking would be likely to say "they" or "them" rather than bother with the he/she issue.

    I think that in time use of the third person plural (them, they, their) will become accepted as a gender neutral third person singular pronoun alternative to the he/she conundrum. I know this will provoke screams of outrage — it is a pet peeve of mine, as well. But, quite simply, this change has already happened with respect to spoken English. It is only a matter of time before it becomes the norm in writing as well. Especially since public schools apparently don’t teach grammar anymore (or so it would seem from the undergraduate papers I have graded).

  14. Linda M Au says:

    I was hoping to hear you weigh in on the current usage of the singular-then-plural in instances such as this. Example: "A person doesn’t need to give their name out to everyone who asks."

    I see this EVERYWHERE now and it’s becoming a pet peeve. I understand why it started, but it’s flatly wrong to use the singular "person" (or something similar) and then switch to "their" or "they" or "them" merely to avoid using either the masculine or feminine pronoun forms.

    Any tips on this current trend?

  15. Walt Pilcher says:

    A pet peeve of mine is the incorrect use of "their" to cover for gender ambiguity, especially if the pronoun in question is singular.

  16. Nikole Hahn says:

    Our society is getting so dang complicated. I’m a woman and I don’t care if someone uses ‘he’ throughout the article to non-specified gender. Wouldn’t using ‘he’ in one paragraph and switching to ‘she’ in another cause the article to appear rather confusing? Why do women feel they need to be justified in this day and age by pc language? Okay, rant over.

    Anyway, I never liked the he/she because it was so clunky. Personally, preferred he. Thanks for the blog. :o)

  17. Good one, thanks. I mentioned your post on my blog today for my daily "Passion for Writing" feature.

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