It's an age-old quandary: what to do about the lack of a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun in English? Writing teacher Margaret Hundley Parker tackles this grammatical stumbling block, drawing on her experience in the college classroom — on both sides of the pedagogical divide.
When I was in college, way back in the early '90s, I used the feminine pronoun in my essays and got the red-pen treatment. Professors scratched out the s in my she and helped create a budding Riot Grrrl. The problem is that although we have gender-neutral words like person, somebody, everyone, and no one, there's no gender-neutral third person singular pronoun to go with them. The tradition, of course, has been to use the masculine: A person should drape himself in gold lamé for every sunset.
Now I'm on the other side of the red pen, and although my freshmen college writing students still come to class using mostly the masculine pronoun, the feminine is also widely accepted. In fact, many books about usage have sections on non-sexist language, with advice on how to avoid sounding like we're writing to and about only guys. We've come a long way, baby, but in our efforts to clear out the old men from the language, we've created some new messes.
He or She?
My favorite way to begin a discussion on pronouns with a college class is an exercise where students finish sentences such as, "After a hard day on the job, the secretary _____," and "When the plumber arrived at my house ______." I tell them not to think too hard. There is no right answer; the point is to reveal their gender assumptions through their pronoun choices. The secretary's usually a she (as are the nurse and teacher), and the plumber is a he (as are the construction worker, basketball player, and the President). Sometimes the kids get hip to my game and find a way to avoid using gender-revealing pronouns: "After a hard day on the job, the secretary poured a glass of wine." Or "When the plumber arrived at my house, the basement was overflowing."
Getting rid of the pronoun altogether is the best solution, but it's not always practical. Take this sentence: "The student will be accountable for ____ actions." Should it be his or her actions? Cumbersome. Their actions? No good unless you make student plural (see below). What about alternating masculine and feminine pronouns throughout an essay to keep it equal? Confusing.
My vote is to pick one and stick with it throughout the piece. Of course sometimes the audience determines which to use — no need for the masculine pronoun in an article for pregnant women, nor should one use the feminine pronoun in a note, say, to a men's soccer team.
He or She = They
When someone doesn't want to reveal the gender of another person, she (!) might say, "A friend of mine is coming over, and they should be here soon." Coy. That's not the only time they steps into the singular pronoun's shoes. They is becoming more accepted as a she/he alternative even though it sounds odd because it's a plural pronoun referring to one person.
One day I was happily teaching my class about how some indefinite pronouns — anybody, everybody, everyone, somebody, each, no one, nobody — are singular. I was using examples from Donald Hall and Sven Birkerts' Writing Well (not in my usual arsenal), such as "Everyone carried ___ tennis racket." Everyone is a singular indefinite pronoun and requires a his or her tennis racket. The best way around that is not to use a pronoun: "Everyone carried a tennis racket." The point being you shouldn't say, "Everyone carried their tennis racket." "But their sounds right!" my students exclaimed. As I always do in times of strife, I turned to Bryan Garner's Modern American Usage. And I hate to say it, but my students were on to something. Garner supports the use of they with everyone, and admits "they has increasingly moved towards singular senses. Disturbing though these developments may be to purists, they're irreversible. And nothing that a grammarian says will change them."
So I let my students have their way with they, as long as in the example — Everyone carried their tennis racket — they make the rackets plural, too, so at least it doesn't sound like a mob of tennis players clutching a single racket. In the case of "The student will be accountable for their actions," the answer here is to make students plural, which is another good solution in general: pluralize the antecedent so they pleases everyone.
The Pronoun Revolution
Sometimes he doesn't fit, she doesn't fit, and they just doesn't make sense. An interesting solution comes from transgender students on college campuses who use new pronouns to solve the gender problem.
I first read about this a few years ago in an article in the New York Times (March 7, 2004). One student on the transgender hall at Wesleyan who is biologically female but looks androgynous, lives with a male student who "uses pronouns that have evolved in the transgender community: 'ze' instead of 'he' or 'she'; 'hir' instead of 'him' or 'her.'"
Although this was my introduction to the new pronouns, evidently they've been around for years. Upon further reading (thanks, Internet!) I discovered that the discussion about gender pronouns hardly started at Wesleyan. In fact, there used to be a singular third person pronoun — a, not the article but a blend of Middle English's he and she — but it fell out of favor because people wanted to know the gender. So much for progress. For more on gender pronoun history, go here. More recently, the Twin Oaks community that started in 1967 has about a hundred people using co as a gender-neutral pronoun in place of hers or his. Check them out here.
The problem with these nonstandard gender-neutral pronouns is that the writer has to explain them, and that draws attention from the content. The trick is to find a way to keep the writing smooth, and unless you're writing about gender issues or sexism, keep the focus off the pronouns. The solution is to avoid those singular third person pronouns entirely if possible, the next best thing is to choose he or she, and finally when all else fails use they sparingly.
Margaret Hundley Parker's work has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Time Out New York, Oxygen.com, Bust and performed at the North Carolina Literary Festival, CBGBs, and the 24-Hour Plays, to name a few. She has been an editor at FIT magazine and Road & Travel. Her book, the KISS Guide to Fitness, was published in 2002 by Dorling Kindersley. She has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches writing at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Pratt Institute, and through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative.