Paul Wesslund

There should be a their there

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I just read an essay I liked by a columnist asking to be referred to as “they” and not “he.”

That’s a request that would horrify a traditional grammarian. I think it makes sense but they’d say it doesn’t follow the rules.

If you were bothered by my use of “they” to refer to a person in the previous sentence, let me explain.

If you didn’t, you can stop reading, because I’ve made my point with you—obviously “they” can work just fine as a substitute for “he,” “she,” or “he or she.”

Here’s a link to the essay I’m referring to, Farhad Manjoo’s “Call Me They” in The New York Times this morning. It discusses reasonable reasons for using “they,” including some scientific research. But I’ve got my own thinking as well.

Most writers in 2019 recognize that the old-timey technique of referring to a generic person as “he” is at least frowned upon, and they’re struggling for a replacement.

I’m reading two books right now where the writer has solved the dilemma by interchangeably using “she” and “he” as a generic singular pronoun. There are a few reasons I think that is a terrible solution.

First I find it distracting. I’m trying to follow this text about the meaning of life when all of a sudden all I can think about is that the person finding enlightenment is “she.” After a lifetime of being conditioned to read “he” as referring to each individual on the planet, it’s possible I’d be less distracted by the masculine pronoun. Well, actually, no. After a decade of pondering this issue as a writer, I now find I’m distracted by a generic “he” as well.

In general, you want people to pay attention to what you write, not how you write it.

The second and least important reason is I think it’s just goofy to be apparently randomly switching back and forth between “he” and “she.”

The most important reason is it’s just plain not accurate. I switched to using “their” generically a few years ago after contemplating the political correctness arguments, and figuring out that it wasn’t about language fashions, but about correct and incorrect. All grammarians, farmers, writers, and people in the street are not male. There is no justification for using “he” as a generic, factually or morally.

Interchanging “he” and “she” is just as inaccurate. Not all grammarians, farmers, writers, and people in the street are female. Not even occasionally or interchangeably.

I went through a period of substituting “he or she” as a generic. I finally decided that sounded goofy too, and no amount of use over time would normalize the sound of that phrase to the ear or brain. It’s just a clunky construction.

And “he or she” is getting inaccurate as well. The increasing recognition of trans, non-binary, and just plain reasonable requests from people not wanting to be categorized according to a gender role, is legitimate. I’ve been paying more attention in my writing to the negative power that stigma holds on our society, consciousness, and freedom. Avoiding the categorizing we do when we label a fellow human being is a way we can restore a measure of dignity to our relationships with each other.

The most potent use rap against “their” is it too, is inaccurate. Well, OK, it’s true that an individual is not a “they.” I have two counters to that. One, what else you got? “He or she?” Yech (see above.) Second, “they” and “their” seem more likely to eventually become natural sounding and integrated into the language, compared to the alternatives. Language changes—get over it. Been to a 400-year-old Shakespeare play lately? Heard a hip-hop song lately? Get woke.

Finally, writers, let’s use our imaginations. Isn’t creativity what we do? Truth is, while I do occasionally use “they” as a singular pronoun, I recognize its problems and make the effort to write around it. Take my second paragraph as an example. I normally wouldn’t write it that way. These days I’d more likely write a better sentence: “That request would horrify traditional grammarians. I think it makes sense but they’d say it doesn’t follow the rules.”

Was that so hard?

More to explore

Norman Rockwell completed “Normal Rockwell Visits a Country Editor” in 1946 (just a part of it shown here.) Newsrooms have changed, since then but the value of good journalism hasn’t.

Declaring the decline of newspapers a national disaster

Reading Time: 5 minutes Newspapers are in decline and it’s a national disaster. Communities are losing their ability to hold public officials accountable with effects as profound as tearing our society apart. We need radical solutions—maybe a federally funded force of reporters?

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