He, She, They

A footnote about SoMA's editorial policy concerning the use of "they" as a singular pronoun.

By John D. Spalding

If you reached this page, it’s probably because you discovered an instance in which SoMA has used the plural “they” as a singular pronoun, thus violating a rule of number agreement. And if you’ve recently memorized Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” (or whatever the kids are reading in editing school these days), then you may be flipping out.

Well, relax. We—rather, I—realize the “error” I have committed. In fact, I've done it intentionally. So please don't send me an email informing me of my transgression. (Yup, I've received schoolmarmish email about my use of "they" before; several times, in fact. Hence, this edifying exercise.)

You see, in the sentence from which you just linked, I, as either the sentence’s author or editor, was referring to a specific person of indeterminate gender. Say I wrote “your doctor,” referring to, you know, your doctor. I don’t know whether “your doctor” is male or female, so I would refer to “him or her” (or “he or she,” “his or her,” etc, depending on the context). I wouldn’t simply go with the masculine pronoun. What if your doctor is a female?

In all instances after the first use of “his or her,” however, I would refer to your (singular) doctor as “they.” Why? I find reading sentence after sentence littered with “his or hers” to be annoying and distracting. And, trust me, if I could have simply used “doctors,” plural, I would have. But how would your “doctors” have felt about that?

The good news is that lots of people who know more about language than perhaps you and I do say it’s perfectly acceptable to use “they” as a singular pronoun. Here’s what John M. Lawler, a profesor of linguistics at the University of Michigan, has to say about it:

On non-gender he, he/she, and singular they:

The way I see it, one really has a number of choices in cases where pronouns must be used (more correctly, I should say "cases where the speaker wants to use a pronoun", never mind must; it's the speaker's language, after all), and the gender is either

Generic: When somebody comes to see you, you should offer ___ coffee.
Unknown: ___ signed it 'Chris'.

You can use he/she, he or she, s/he, or some other kludgy phrase. This offends just about everybody, including most likely the speaker ___self, because it is a kludge. It's polysyllabic and syntactically complex, and it draws attention to its political correctness at the expense of its sense and reference. It's distracting, and it's a poor informational strategy because of that, just as misspelling is a poor informational strategy in writing. What one normally wants in a pronoun is something monosyllabic and unstressed that won't draw any attention. After all, we already know who we're talking about, or we wouldn't be using a pronoun in the first place. This is a lose-lose situation.

Then there are two conventional solutions that violate one Rule of Grammar each, and therefore incense some people. Which people they incense depends on which Rule of Grammar is being violated -- there are several different Special Interest Groups involved.

1. You can use he generically, which violates the Rule of Grammar that says that he is Masculine, and therefore can't be used with Feminine reference, even Indefinite Feminine reference, just as you can't use it. (This violates a Gender Agreement rule)

Once the patient is prepped, he should be moved into the delivery room.

2. You can use they generically, which violates the Rule of Grammar that says that they is Plural, and therefore can't be used with Singular reference, even Indefinite Singular reference, just as you can't use we. (This violates a Number Agreement rule)

Once the patient is prepped, they should be moved into the delivery room.

Neither rule seems to me worth dying for, since they're just generalizations about number and gender agreement, and Number and Gender are just abstract grammatical properties. On its surface, it should be about as important to public policy as, say, Goldbach's Conjecture. Obviously, everybody does as they please, for whatever reason pleases them. There are no doubt statistical generalizations one could draw, but they wouldn't really settle the etiquetical problem of what's polite to use. And that depends on whom you're willing to offend, apparently.

Some people do get very exercised about grammar, nonetheless. Different people with each rule, in fact.

* The people who get upset about violating Rule 1, the gender agreement rule, tend to be women, and men who don't feel like excluding women.

* The people who get upset about violating Rule 2, the number agreement rule, on the other hand, tend to be people who don't know much about language, of both genders.

If offense be inevitable, I would personally prefer not to offend people because of their sex, which they really aren't responsible for; but I don't mind nearly so much offending people because of their ignorance.


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John D. Spalding is the editor of Somareview.com

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