‘He or she’ versus ‘they’

It’s often important to use language which implicitly or explicitly includes both men and women, making no distinction between the genders. This can be tricky when it comes to pronouns. In English, a person's gender is explicit in the third person singular pronouns (i.e., he, she, his, hers, etc.). There are no personal pronouns that can refer to someone (as opposed to something) without identifying whether that person is male or female. So, what should you do in sentences such as these?

If your child is thinking about a gap year, ? can get good advice from this website.

A researcher has to be completely objective in ? findings.

In the past, people tended to use the pronouns he, his, him, or himself in situations like this:

If your child is thinking about a gap year, he can get good advice from this website.

A researcher has to be completely objective in his findings.

Today, this approach is seen as outdated and sexist. There are other options which allow you to arrive at a ‘gender-neutral’ solution, as follows:

  • You can use the wording ‘he or she’, ‘his or her’, etc.:

If your child is thinking about a gap year, he or she can get good advice from this website.

A researcher has to be completely objective in his or her findings.

This can work well, as long as you don’t have to keep repeating ‘he or she’, ‘his or her’, etc. throughout a piece of writing.

  • You can make the relevant noun plural, rewording the sentence as necessary:

If your children are thinking about a gap year, they can get good advice from this website.

Researchers have to be completely objective in their findings.

This approach can be a good solution, but it won’t always be possible.

  • You can use the plural pronouns ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘their’ etc., despite the fact that, technically, they are referring back to a singular noun:

If your child is thinking about a gap year, they can get good advice from this website.

A researcher has to be completely objective in their findings.

Some people object to the use of plural pronouns in this type of situation on the grounds that it’s ungrammatical. In fact, the use of plural pronouns to refer back to a singular subject isn’t new: it represents a revival of a practice dating from the 16th century. It’s increasingly common in current English and is now widely accepted both in speech and in writing.

You can read more about the debate surrounding the use of ‘he or she’ versus ‘they’ on the Oxford Dictionaries blog.

 

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