Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we’re free at last: “they” is a perfectly respectable singular pronoun. Come on, folks, if it was good enough for Jane Austen, then it’s good enough for you and me.
“I wonder why on earth anyone ever thought it was necessary to have gendered pronouns to begin with. In Finnish we have “hän”, used for both human genders, whereas “se” (it) is used for inanimate, non-sentients, but it can also, in certain circumstances, be used as a pronoun for a person (without meaning any disrespect). It has never thus far resulted in desperate confusion for me. In Swedish meanwhile we’ve had “han” and “hon” (separate pronouns for the genders), but, as of last year, they are now using “hen” (a gender-neutral pronoun). It sounds not unlike the Finnish “hän”. In Swahili, “yeye” is the third person personal pronoun, also applicable to both genders. And then we have French, where even tables and chairs must be assigned genders! It has always made me wonder about those cultures where gender assignation seems to be so desperately important.”—Marie Clausén, author of Sacred Architecture in a Secular Age (2016)
When I was in high school, my teachers told me that I couldn’t use the word “I” in a formal essay. I was taught to refer to the human race as “mankind” or “man” (e.g., Man’s Search for Meaning). When referring to a hypothetical individual, my teachers maintained that masculine pronouns such as “he” and “his” ought to be used (e.g., When the average student contemplates his future in these difficult economic times, he invariably worries about whether or not he’ll be able to find a good job after he graduates).
When I was an undergraduate at Concordia University, my professors told me that using “I” in a formal essay was perfectly acceptable. What’s more, they told me that referring to the human race as “mankind” was sexist; “humankind” was to be used instead. My professors also told me that using masculine pronouns to refer to the hypothetical individual was sexist. But they never really provided me with a viable alternative, making philosophical essays especially difficult to write. Most of us got around the problem by avoiding personal pronouns altogether. When personal pronouns were absolutely unavoidable, we generally resorted to the gender neutral “they”.
When I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, my professors taught me that “they” referred to more than one person; it was plural, and could not be used to describe a hypothetical individual. Thankfully, these professors did provide us with alternatives. But they were all more or less ugly and awkward (e.g., “he/she”, “he or she”); even the best of the proposed compromises, which involved alternating between “he” and “she” throughout your essay, proved, in practice, awkward. Still, I’ve been preaching this grammatical gospel to my students for years, dutifully correcting their improper usage of the word “they”.
But I’ve just recently learned that “they” is a perfectly acceptable all-purpose gender-neutral pronoun. Shout it from the rooftops at the top of your lungs, friends: Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we’re free at last: “they” is a perfectly respectable singular pronoun. Come on, folks, if it was good enough for Jane Austen, then it’s good enough for you and me. YES, this is indeed what keeps me up on a warm August night. And NO, I refuse to get a life.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2015)
Originally published at Committing Sociology. Reprinted with permission.
Photo courtesy of author.