Solving the he/she his/her dilemma once and for all

There's a bug in the English language that has been driving non-fiction writers – including this ghostwriter – barmy for many years. That bug is the lack of a simple 'third-person gender-neutral singular pronoun'. In plain English, there isn't a single word that covers both 'he' and 'she', or both 'his' and 'her'.

This is a problem when you are making a point that applies equally to males and females, as in:

When a person wants to maintain his or her weight, the best way for him or her to do this is to eat a balanced diet and to make sure he or she gets plenty of exercise.

Okay, that's a bit clumsy, but you get the point. In a long document like a book or even a decent article or blog post, no matter how good the writing, this can quickly become unwieldy if not unreadable.

There have been various attempts to correct this over the years:

  • One is to simply stick to the male pronouns – he/him/his. Simple, but this approach has rightly been consigned to history.
  • One is to alternate gender references, using he/him/his in one paragraph or example and she/her/her in the next. However this becomes a distraction – a lot of readers, if only subconsciously, start running a mental scorecard to make sure the writer has remained 'balanced'. From a writing and editing point of view this approach also introduces an unnecessary source of potential error.
  • Another is to use the impersonal pronoun 'one': "The best way for one to maintain one's weight...". Sounds a bit olde-England doesn't it? Similarly using 'it/its' doesn't cut it.
  • Yet another has been to come up with new words to fit the bill. Examples are 'zhe', 'zher' and 'zhim' for his, her and him. Needless to say none of these has caught on.

History solves the problem

The solution to this problem has in fact been around since the 16th century. Back then the Oxford English Dictionary blessed the use of 'they', 'their' and 'them' as valid for both singular and plural purposes, as in:

When a person wants to maintain their weight, the best way for them to do this is to eat a balanced diet and make sure they get plenty of exercise.

Somewhere along the way, apparently in the 18th century, objection was raised to this usage of they/their/them on the basis that they are plural, not singular. The words continued to be used in spoken English (and always have been) but the objection stuck for the written word. It has caused confusion and angst for readers and writers ever since.

However, like the use of 'but' and 'and' at the beginning of a sentence, this objection has always been populist rather than grammatical.

Today's dictionaries and usage guides all support the singular use of they/their/them. (These include the New Oxford, Merriam-Webster and Macquarie dictionaries, Webster's English Usage and The Cambridge Guide to English Usage).

So, should you find yourself faltering over this dilemma in future, falter no more. Use they/their/them in the singular context with confidence that, as the Cambridge Guide puts it, "Writers who [do so] are not at fault".

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please contact me directly, via our Facebook page or in the comments below.

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