As a sociologist, linguist and writer, I have searched high and low for a gender-neutral pronoun to replace the sexist convention of using “he” to mean “one person”. In the recent decades, “he or she” has gained momentum as the more inclusive substitute, but, as any writer will tell you, it is awkward and cumbersome to maneuver so many words around. We need a single-word solution. And so, having agonized over this dilemma for too long, I, hereby, throw in the towel and contest that it is time to stop holding out for the ideal candidate and accept “they” as a formal gender-neutral pronoun, grammarians be damned.
I have arrived at this conclusion because:
- After years of trying, we are yet to come up with a new gender-neutral term that is embraced by the public and incorporated into its active vocabulary.
- Try as we might, there is no magic recipe to make the old gendered pronouns work without bias.
- Many, if not most, of us are already informally using “they” in speech, when we mean “he or she”.
Frustrated by the lack of a designated un-gendered pronoun, many academics, journalists and public figures started the practice of alternating “she” and “he” throughout a speech or an article – for the sake of fairness. Others dropped “he” entirely and use only “she” – as if to compensate for all the centuries of exclusive use of “he”.
These are all steps in the right direction – but more so symbolically and politically than pragmatically. Alternating “he” and “she” forces you to keep a count of how many of each you use – and you still don’t escape from having to prioritize one gender over another (will the first mention be “he” or “she”?). Our gender-neutral pronouns should not require having to “keep score”: it is too labor-intensive for the brain and, I’ll bet, provokes unconscious anxiety. Likewise, letting go of the masculine pronoun altogether and only using “she” may feel like justified revenge but is, ultimately, a counter-productive measure that succeeds only in flipping the power imbalance, as opposed to doing away with it. It reinforces the old framework of dominance and visibility of one gender over another – a trend we are trying to fix, not perpetuate.
This is why the term “they” is so useful: it made its way into our speech as a substitute for “he or she” completely organically! In colloquial conversation and on the internet, “they” has been long appropriated by people as the go-to gender-neutral term and even the ever-vigilant “grammar police” on message boards does not usually attack it – probably because they recognize the precious utility of this word in this context.
The word “they”, however, is yet to be accepted as a “standard” in formal / journalistic / academic writing as many scholars take offense to such flippant misuse of language. When I used “they” in my grad school writings, I was given a stern talking to by my academic advisor who found it highly objectionable. He and I have, since, gone back and forth on this issue and, the last time we spoke about it, he said something along the lines of: “I know young people use it and I know that it’s becoming dominant and it will eventually take over completely but, by then, I will mercifully be in my grave.” Hearing him say that made me sad because I wished him a long and happy life but really did not want to wait so long for freedom and equality in linguistic expression.
Being a semantic nit-picker myself, I would not have gone with “they” either, had there been any reasonable selection to choose from – but, for lack of better ideas, it is all we have. I hope my former advisor comes to understand that this is not an instance when half-literate knuckleheads want to butcher the English language with lazy word misappropriation. It is just that a time has come for a gender-neutral pronoun to take over the dated gendered word and all of us brilliant scholar / artist / teacher minds still have not been able to invent one that would be naturally assimilated into speech by the average person.
Maybe we will, in time, engineer the perfect gender-neutral pronoun – but let’s not wait until then to leave the gendered ones behind. It is not easy to fabricate a new cultural trend and cause a mental shift in a huge number of people. — well, without applying draconian dictatorial measures, that is. Social philosophers, scientists and policy makers around the world are laboring to develop new inter-gender terms, rooted in real linguistic systems, designed to be short and made up of familiar sounds. But the real challenge is to get people to consistently use them: to, first, agree that this new word is worth the pain of switching to it and, then, to actually start using it all the time. File it under “good luck with that.” I really do wish us all luck in figuring out the new, better gender-neutral pronoun but, in the meanwhile, let’s give “they” the green light.
In conclusion, the fact that the word “they” somehow became the de facto gender-neutral term with the general population is a gift to us from our evolving language that must be celebrated and gratefully taken advantage of. A problem that has been extremely difficult to correct by artificial involvement solved itself all on its own!! Don’t fight it – run with it.