Avoiding singular they but using singular their

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From the Wikipedia article on Quakers:

When an individual Quaker feels led to speak, he or she will rise to their feet and share a spoken message ("vocal ministry") in front of others.

From the LSU Office of the University Registrar:

If a student is not meeting MINIMUM ACADEMIC PROGRESS (off-track) TWO consecutive semesters in the same major, he or she will be required to change their major.

From the Wichita Public Schools web site:

* If you have an ELEMENTARY school student, he or she will be assigned to their neighborhood elementary school unless you apply to and are accepted at one of 18 magnet elementary schools.
* If you have a MIDDLE school student, he or she will be assigned to their neighborhood middle school unless you apply to and are accepted at one of 6 magnet elementary schools or the Robinson IB program.
* If you have a HIGH school student, he or she will be assigned to their neighborhood high school unless you apply to and are accepted at Northeast Magnet or the East International Baccalaureate program.

Wilson Investigation Network: "Is My Spouse Cheating?":

Ninety percent of the time, a person who is having an extra-marital affair cheats with someone with whom he or she is friendly and close with at their job. […]
He or she will call their lover even when the spouse is at home, in the shower, outside, or on a different floor of the house.

Air Warriors Paintball & Airsoft:

6) The definition of being “Hit” is when the airsoft BB Hits any part of the players clothing, body, or weapon. Once a player is “Hit”, He or she will raise their weapon over their head and shout hit. After the fact is established, and the opposing player knows the situation the player will walk out of the battle area and return to the safe zone with their weapon over their head.

Tug-of-war.org.uk: Guide for Judges and Competitors:

When the Line Judge sees that each team is correctly in position, he or she will raise their arm.

Introduction to Developmental Psychology:

Babinski Reflex: when baby's foot is stroked, he or she will spread their toes.

WikiHow: How to Fight a Cell Phone Ticket in California:

If the traffic officer does not show up in court, then your ticket will be dismissed. If the officer does attend, then he or she will present their account of the event first. Then you will be given a chance to respond. Present your defense strategy and any witnesses that you may have at that time.

And thousands more

There are a few that go the other way, e.g. from ParentCentral.Net:

Consider having a “driving contract” which includes a statement that clearly states if your teen drinks and/or drives they will lose his or her driving privileges.

But in most of the cases that match the other pattern, they is not co-referent with his or her:

They think that by cutting off the family member they will change his or her behavior.

If the AIP is in a facility, they will also review his or her chart and interview any professionals involved with the AIP's care.

When friends and family locate your child on GiveCollege, they will see his or her first name, last name, age, hometown and a photo if you choose to add one

Schools will not recognize a professor's name, but they will recognize his or her passion for your future.



  1. Jonathon Owen said,

    October 2, 2013 @ 11:15 pm

    I caught an especially nice specimen once while editing. I don't remember the exact wording, but it was something like, "Because one does not want to be misunderstood, he or she will do everything they can to communicate clearly."

    I wonder if people hear so much about singular they that they know to look for it but don't stop to think about its inflected forms. Perhaps the collocation he or she is becoming natural for some people, but not yet his or her.

  2. Steve Kass said,

    October 2, 2013 @ 11:15 pm

    Works for me. I guess (and I'm definitely guessing) when "their" comes right after the singular antecedent "he or she," it's easy to read as a singular possessive pronoun. Although there's usually an singular antecedent for "he or she," too, the pattern is less consistent, and if "they" were used in place, there might be more chance a different antecedent applies.

    The one that jars me is the Babinski/baby, because I'd prefer "it will spread its toes."

  3. Yuval said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 1:11 am

    The post's title would have been even amusinger if it started with "annals of".

    [(myl) Curiously, that's how it was originally. But it ran over to a second title line, which I try to avoid.]

  4. other one spoon said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 1:59 am

    Other linguistic oddities in these examples:

    1. "with someone with whom he or she is friendly and close with"
    That is three withs, or one too many. You start out trying not to end with a preposition, but then you forget that you started out that way, so you end with the preposition anyway – bam, extra preposition. For many years I thought the chorus to Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die" went like "… but if ever-lovin' world in which we live in," but in that case it's actually "we're livin'."

    [(myl) See "A note of dignity or austerity", 5/3/2007; "Back to the future, redundant preposition department", 5/4/2007; "A phenomenon in which I'm starting to believe in", 5/14/2007; "Could preposition doubling be heading our way?", 5/15/2007; "Re-doubled prepositions", 5/19/2007;"With whom he was speaking with", 12/21/2009; "A nation in which supports dependency", 7/9/2012.]

    2. "if your teen drinks and/or drives"
    "And/or" is a problem for a lot of people. In this case, if your teen drives, he or she loses their driving privileges. Hmm.

  5. Ray Dillinger said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 3:16 am

    Just a note, but in text I've taken to using 's/he'.

    I dislike the "singular plural" but it's so ubiquitous now that I have to consider it as the likely future of this language.

  6. GeorgeW said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 4:45 am

    Perhaps 'he or she' followed immediately by 'his or her' is just too unwieldy. One is bad enough, but two, ugh.

  7. Richard Wein said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 4:53 am

    Using the plural form (they/them/their) throughout can sound (to me) too much like a plural, and might even create ambiguity. (Does it refer to more than one person?) But using separate words ("he or she"/"his or her") throughout can be rather cumbersome. Opening with "he or she" and then switching to "their" seems like a sensible compromise.

  8. pj said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 7:20 am

    Just to note that the Quaker example is in a context where there is a possible plural antecedent for 'they' in the previous sentence[s], viz 'Friends':

    Friends gather together in "expectant waiting upon God" to experience his still small voice leading them from within. There is no plan on how the meeting will proceed, and actual practice varies widely between Meetings and individual worship services. Friends believe that God plans what will happen, with his spirit leading people to speak. When an individual Quaker feels led to speak, he or she will rise…

    Using 'they' instead of 'he or she' would suggest – or leave open the possibility – that all the Friends present rise when one of them speaks. 'He or she' seems the best choice for clarity here (barring an alternative rephrasing), not necessarily indicative of an aversion to singular 'they' in itself.

  9. MattF said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 7:40 am

    "They think that by cutting off the family member they will change his or her behavior." It seems to me that the 'his or her' avoids an ambiguity in "…they will change their behavior." But it's not obvious to me how the ambiguity is avoided, if you believe that 'their' and 'his or her' are equivalent.

  10. Faldone said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 8:33 am

    In the example from Is My Spouse Cheating:

    Ninety pecent of the time, a person who is having an extra-marital affair cheats with someone with whom he or she is friendly and close with at their job. […]

    it seems clear to me that the referent of their is both individuals in the extra-marital affair

  11. quixote said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 8:38 am

    Language often does not avoid ambiguity. We need a gender-neutral pronoun in English. The invented pronouns like "ze" and "hir" do nothing but pull you up short and do not work. So "they" and "their" it is. Let's get used to it. The alternative is to continue to erase women from the language, which is much more damaging than learning to handle a new bit of ambiguity.

  12. The Ridger said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 8:49 am

    MattF: ""They think that by cutting off the family member they will change his or her behavior." It seems to me that the 'his or her' avoids an ambiguity in "…they will change their behavior." But it's not obvious to me how the ambiguity is avoided, if you believe that 'their' and 'his or her' are equivalent."

    You avoid it the same you avoid it in "John thinks if he cuts off Bill he will change his behavior" – that is, by context.

  13. Iamaom said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 9:53 am

    "The alternative is to continue to erase women from the language, which is much more damaging than learning to handle a new bit of ambiguity."

    Or rather "he" would just become gender neutral instead.

  14. Michael Newman said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 10:24 am

    Since I wrote a diss on this topic way back in 93, let me chime in, although more about the comments than the original post.

    The choice of pronoun does not only obey the gender neutral natural agreement constraint but also a degree of individuation intended (for singular forms) versus genericness (i.e., ref to a class). Therefore, ""by cutting off the family member they will change his or her behavior" or more felicitously his behavior or her behavior creates a personification effect or implication that a specific individual is being referred to. More individuation. "their behavior" is more a general statement. Generic sense.

    Issues of gender fairness, obsession with number agreement, and overblown concerns about potential ambiguity overshadow the really more interesting issue from a linguistic perspective.

  15. cs said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 11:33 am

    I'm with the above comment in being put off by the use of their in the baby example. I think whenever it is possible to use "it" or "its", "they" or "their" sounds wrong to me.

  16. cs said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 11:33 am

    I'm with the above comment in being put off by the use of their in the baby example. I think whenever it is possible to use "it" or "its", "they" or "their" sounds wrong to me.

  17. John Cowan said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 12:10 pm

    The weirdness of the Wichita Schools examples is the equivocation on you. In the first appearance in each sentence, it means a parent; in the second appearance, it means the child. (Granted, parents can and do apply for their young children, but it's the child, not the parent, who's accepted.)

    Iamaom: That will only happen if we begin to say things like "Either the husband or the wife may state his opinion on the proposed settlement."

  18. Ellen K. said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 12:48 pm

    John Cowan, in the Wichita Schools example it could be a plural "you" the 2nd time in each example, inclusive of both the parents and the child.

  19. Ellen K. said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 1:00 pm

    CS, for some English speakers, myself included, using "it" for a baby doesn't work.

  20. Dan Hemmens said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

    "They think that by cutting off the family member they will change his or her behavior." It seems to me that the 'his or her' avoids an ambiguity in "…they will change their behavior." But it's not obvious to me how the ambiguity is avoided, if you believe that 'their' and 'his or her' are equivalent.

    I don't think the original post suggested that "his or her" is equivalent to "their", because "their" can refer to more than one person while "his or her" cannot. So "their" can substitute for "his or her" in most contexts (unless you are avoiding singular "their") but "his or her" can only substitute for "their" in contexts when "their" is singular.

    It also strikes me that, were we to open a wholly new can of pedantry, there are those who would loudly insist that "their" cannot refer to the family because the family is singular.

  21. James said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 3:27 pm

    Interesting. The main examples sound perfectly natural to me, whereas the reversed "they… his or her…" sounds, if not strictly incorrect, extremely weird and stilted. I think I would go ahead and use singular 'they' as well in the examples, but the mixed versions do seem quite all right.

  22. Robert said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

    This reminds me of the difficulty a lot of English speakers have with using "one" as a subject, as in "One reaps what he sows" or "One never knows where life will take them." I agree that it's unwieldy to say "he or she" followed by "his or her" but such attempts at academic English that dissolve immediately after are a nuisance. Writers should pick a register and stick to it.

  23. the other Mark P said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 5:13 pm

    You reap what you sow.
    You never know where life will take you.

    No need to invoke "one" at all.

  24. Peter said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 5:23 pm

    The “difficulty with using one” that some commenters are referring to is in part an AmE/BrE difference, I’m pretty sure. I’d be interested if anyone can point to an authoritative description of this (I can’t find anything by googling, and I don’t have access to CGEL, which presumably treats it), but in lieu of that, some anecdotal evidence:

    – In the BrE I was brought up with (London/Essex-based, educated middle-class), one was used not just to introduce a referent but also for subsequent references: One shouldn’t speak with one’s mouth full.

    – To the Brits I knew, one was maybe a slight marker of conservative or posh speech, but not remarkably so.

    – In the AmE I’ve lived among for about a decade (NE U.S./Canada, mostly academics), one functions much more like anyone or someone: it’s used to introduce a referent, but not to refer back to it afterwards. Hence, typically, One shouldn’t speak with their mouth full. or …with his mouth full., etc., which in BrE I would hear as ungrammatical. (And I suspect that the BrE usage I give above would seem ungrammatical to most AmE speakers?)

    – To many US speakers, this usage of one is a conspicuous marker of academic/high-falutin’ speech.

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 5:43 pm

    Peter: Your British use of "one.. one's… oneself" was taught to me as the only correct form in (standard) American English. It's true, though, that many Americans refer to "one" with "his" or "their". Sorry, no authoritative reference at the moment.

  26. Levantine said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 5:56 pm

    I'm a 31-year-old Brit from London (now living in the States), and I can't agree with Peter. I don't think my countrymen are any more proficient in the use of 'one' than Americans, and the usage sounds decidedly formal to me. Perhaps it's to do with the circles that one moves in. :-)

  27. Matt said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 8:07 pm

    (Granted, parents can and do apply for their young children, but it's the child, not the parent, who's accepted.)

    I dunno, aren't we currently undergoing a helicopterocaclypse where parents do literally everything for their precious snowflakes, cats and dogs living together etc.? (No? But that one dude in Slate totally said things were different when he was a kid!) It would be totally consistent with that to say that "you," plural, are accepted into a baccalaureate course.

  28. Mark W. said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 8:49 pm

    I wonder if there's any significance to the case difference. myl only searched on instances where the nominative pronouns precede the genitive; my hypothesis is that the mediating factor is the order, rather than the case. In other words, the rule these writers are following might not be "nominative is he/she, genitive is their" but "you can switch from he/she to they, but you can't switch from they to he/she".

    My reason for guessing this comes from my experience of the original 1959 rules of Risk. Like any other game's rules, the 1959 rules of Risk routinely need to reference a generic player. The 1959 rules of Risk interchangeably use "he/she" and singular "they" to refer to a generic player; often both are used with the same antecedent, with "he/she" coming before "they". (Generic "he" also crops up once or twice.) This usage of coreferent "he/she" and "they" struck me as very odd at the time — I would have said it was ungrammatical, though my intuitions may be off. But now I wonder if what myl's posting about is simply the same thing — use of coreferent "he/she" and "they", with "he/she" coming before "they". (Case doesn't appear to be a factor in the 1959 rules of Risk; I found both nominative singular "they" and "his/her".)

    (I also have a copy of the 1980 rules, which are quite different in presentation. The 1980 rules are written in the second person instead of the third person, and so there are far fewer occasions to use third-person pronouns. When they do use third-person pronouns, they seem to always use "he or she".)

    Incidentally, as other one spoon noted, that ParentCentral example is very badly written (consider the truth table for "drinks and/or drives"), so the exceptional pronoun usage in that example, with "they" coming first and then "his or her" second, might just be bad writing.

  29. Mark W. said,

    October 3, 2013 @ 9:18 pm

    Let me be more precise about the Risk examples.

    The 1959 rules will frequently switch from "he/she" to "they":

    He/she may elect to place all of their extra armies on a single territory, or they may divide them among several territories in any way that they think best.

    Case does not appear to be a factor; consider this sentence:

    When a player does not wish to make, or cannot make any further attacks, his/her turn ends and they are entitled to a Free move.

    The rules will sometimes use "they" in a sentence, and then switch to "he/she" for the next sentence:

    If the defender has two or more armies in the territory they are defending, they may roll either one or two dice. If he/she has only one army they may roll only a single die.

    Occasionally "they" occurs in a subordinate clause, and then "he/she" follows in the main clause:

    If a player has captured one or more territories on their turn, he/she is entitled to take the top card from the deck that has already been placed face down on the table.

    Oh, and here's an instance in the rules' introduction where they switch from "he or she" to "he":

    No attempt has been made to teach strategy, as each player will develop his or her own as he becomes familiar with the game.

  30. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

    @Michael Newman:

    Your findings match my intuitions exactly. I can use "singular they" only if the referent is a class:

    every student loves their weekends

    If it is an individual it is ungrammatical, e.g.

    *any one student loves their weekends

    I have to use either "he" or "he or she":

    any one student loves his (or her) weekends

    So for me, "they" is not a true substitute for a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

  31. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 3:11 pm

    Also, the politicization of the issue is linguistically uninformed and I'm surprised even professional linguists fall for it. If the meaning of a word is fixed by usage, and if "he" sometimes is used with a gender-neutral meaning, then "he" is a gender-neutral pronoun! End of discussion! To argue that somehow it "should" be only masculine and therefore any time we use "he" in a gender-neutral way we are enforcing masculine dominance is really a prescriptivist argument.

  32. Ellen K. said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 3:25 pm

    Really, Jonathan? How can a word used as a gendered pronoun be "a gender-neutral pronoun! End of discussion!". End of discussion? Without even mentioned the FACT that "he" is also very much a gendered pronoun, used specifically for males?

    And, frankly, I think it's okay to be a little prescriptivist in some situations. Especially when it's a choice between that and being sexist.

    And it's not like "they" and "their" for a single indefinite person is anything new. I'm inclined to think most people who use it (in indefinite usages) do so quite naturally, without thinking about it.

    Oh, and frankly, I think the "their" in "any one student loves their weekends" is fine, but "any one student" is rather odd wording that I can't imagine actually being used in any real life situation. Or did you mean "[any one student] loves their weekends", where "any one student" stands for a name? I would agree that "Chris loves their weekends" isn't grammatical (that is, it isn't for me), even if I don't know Chris's gender. I would have to either write "Chris loves his/her weekends" or go with "their" and live with a little ungrammaticality.

  33. Ellen K. said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 3:27 pm

    Oh yeah, and there's nothing political about me, a woman, not liking the usage of "he" as a gender neutral pronoun. Nothing at all. Politics had nothing to do with it. Respect for myself as a woman, and for all women, all females, does.

  34. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 4:15 pm


    It is true that "he" is also used as a gendered, specifically masculine singular pronoun. So what? That only means the word "he", i.e. the string of phonemes /hi/, has two meanings: singular masculine human referent, and singular non-gendered human referent. What makes you think that, when somebody uses "he" in its non-gendered meaning, he somehow is also using it in its gendered meaning?

    It's news to me that prescriptivism is OK. I guess what they should teach in intro is "prescriptivism is bad except where it serves your ideological purposes." I'm glad I've got that cleared up.

    Of course "singular they" is old. MYL has documented its use extensively, with many citations from prestigious literary sources. But according to my own intuitions, and it appears according to the research of Michael Newman, it is not completely interchangeable with "he or she", at least for many speakers, since it can only be used where the referent is a set of individuals and not a single individual.

    It appears your judgments differ from mine, which I suppose means we have different idiolects. Stuff happens.

    I know several women who are fine with using non-gendered "he". Who made you the spokesperson for all women?

  35. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 4:22 pm

    Ellen K.: can you expand more on why "it" for a baby doesn't work in your idiolect? It seems quite a common/standard usage (up to a quite vague cutoff point maybe around a year old?). I'm certainly not denying the possible existence of a subpopulation of AmEng native speakers who don't use it (although I can't recall personally encountering a member of such a subpopulation such that I noticed the person refraining from that usage), but I'm not sure if that subpopulation would be based on region, or social class, or what.

  36. Ellen K. said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 5:40 pm

    Jonathan Gress-Wright, you seem to think I said something I didn't.

    I'm simply taking issue with your "end of discussion" comment, and with your calling it a political issue. I certainly didn't say or suggest that someone is simultaneously using it as both gendered and non-gendered. I do have a brain, and I do know how to use it.

  37. Ellen K. said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 5:53 pm

    @J. W. Brewer.

    No, I can't expand on that. Using "it" for babies is not how I learned language. And it's not logical to use a pronoun for things for a baby, which isn't a thing. Except, that's not really a good argument, I know. So, thus, back to the first point. Which is stating the obvious.

    Here's some discussion from Lynne Murphy on the issue of pronouns for babies, and British vs. American usage. http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2010/11/childish-pronouns.html

    Apparently, from that, there's definite variation.

  38. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 6:29 pm

    @Ellen K:

    If you don't think that "he" must always be used in a gendered way, on what grounds exactly do you object to its non-gendered usage? I admit that was the only way I could make sense of your objection.

  39. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 6:31 pm

    And I stand by my "politicization" comment. Women only started worrying about non-gendered "he" when feminist ideologues starting making an issue out of it. It's not as if for centuries women have been bridling at this (though I'd welcome evidence to the contrary).

  40. Chris Waters said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 6:40 pm

    Jonathan: If "he" were not a gendered pronoun, then most of these examples wouldn't use "he or she." The simple fact is that many people perceive "he" as a gendered pronoun, no matter what tradition might say. And these people (as well as those who disagree) come in all sexes and genders, so nobody's trying to be "spokesperson for all women".

    I was taught that he could be non-gendered when I was young, but over the many years since then, I've come to find the non-gendered use to be awkward, stilted, and old-fashioned (and occasionally offensive, though that's rare). I don't speak for any women, since I'm male, but it just seems a bit archaic to me. And I don't speak for the young either, but I get the strong impression that this is even more true for most people younger than me. Likewise, I think there's some evidence (and this has been discussed on LL before) that the young find singular they acceptable in many more places than even I do. I, for example, don't mind it when the sex of the referent is unknown, but there's evidence that it's becoming acceptable among some to use they when the referent is a specific, known person.

    "?Someone dropped their book here."
    "?John was proud of their new beard"

    I have no problem with the former, even though it doesn't meet your criteria ("can only be used where the referent is a set of individuals"). I have definite problems with the latter, but examples like that have apparently been spotted in the wild, so it seems to be acceptable for some.

  41. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    October 4, 2013 @ 6:58 pm


    Your descriptive facts well may be true and I have absolutely no quibble with them. But to assert that non-gendered "he" is sexist tout court is a form of prescriptivism, and Ellen K conceded this point when she pleaded that "it's OK to be a little prescriptivist". Now maybe prescriptivism is OK, but then we linguists need to be clearer about what kind of prescriptivism is good and what kind is bad, and why our definition of good prescriptivism is valid while a conservative's definition is invalid.

    My own hunch is that the feeling against non-gendered "he" is driven by the feminist campaign against it, and wouldn't have arisen otherwise, which of course could be seen as a kind of validation of that campaign, although it's also a validation of prescriptivism more generally: it IS possible to get people to speak "correctly", i.e. change their linguistic intuitions to align with some prescriptivist norm.

    I'm skeptical that, prior to this campaign, people in general were unable to distinguish the non-gendered from the gendered usage and that their minds were conditioned to be sexist by the use of non-gendered "he". So I do stand by my belief that the opposition to non-gendered "he" is specifically political in origin.

  42. Breffni said,

    October 5, 2013 @ 4:45 am

    Jonathan Gress-Wright:

    Women only started worrying about non-gendered "he" when feminist ideologues starting making an issue out of it. It's not as if for centuries women have been bridling at this (though I'd welcome evidence to the contrary).

    For 'non-gendered "he" in this paragraph, try substituting 'the vote', 'equal pay', 'equal access to education', 'reproductive rights', and so on, and see how well this argument stands up.

  43. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 5, 2013 @ 8:46 am

    People who object to others' use of "it" for infant in such vehement terms as those indicated in the link Ellen K. provided come off as petty, childish, and disagreeable. (I find it interesting simply because I have not come across this phenomenon in real life, as best as I can recall.) No one's demanding that they adopt the usage themselves, but they apparently can't prevent themselves from being jerks about other people's usage of a highly traditional form (it's in the OED and everything). How strong the parallel is to people who peeve about generic he and/or people who peeve about singular they is left as an exercise for the reader.

  44. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 5, 2013 @ 10:25 am

    As I understand it, prescriptivism is the belief that what is part of the language is determined by something other than actual usage. Hence, if someone claimed that the non-gendered use of 'he' is not proper English, that it is a linguistic error, that would be prescriptivism (for so long as some native speakers do use it). To claim that it is a bad thing for other reasons, e.g. because it is sexist, is not in itself prescriptivism.

  45. Chris Waters said,

    October 5, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

    Jonathon: I don't think there's any doubt that prescriptivism can affect what people say, and thus lead to actual changes in the language we describe. It rarely eliminates features, but it can reduce their frequency, and possibly modify the register. I also agree that the campaign against non-gendered he was primarily political, and worked on the language the way that prescriptivism sometimes does. I'm not completely convinced it can really be described as an example of prescriptivism, though. I tend to think of prescriptivism as declaring that something is or isn't "proper English". Nobody ever claimed that non-gendered "he" wasn't proper English. But what happened was certainly analogous to the changes that prescriptivism can have, if not identical, so it's probably not worth arguing about the distinction.

    Where I disagree with you is when you say, "we linguists need to be clearer about what kind of prescriptivism is good and what kind is bad[.]" No. We need to note how the language works. If some prescriptive (or political) formula has had an actual influence on people, we note that. If it turns out to be futile pissing in the wind, as is so often the case, then we dismiss it or challenge it. Prescriptivism is always non-scientific, so in that sense it's always bad, but that's not the issue. It's not about good or bad; it's about correctness. Prescriptivism is harmless when what it prescribes is correct, but should be called out when it's incorrect. It's really that simple.

  46. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    October 5, 2013 @ 2:39 pm

    I think we can deduce all we need to know about Jonathan Gress-Wright from his comment "Women only started worrying about non-gendered "he" when feminist ideologues starting making an issue out of it. It's not as if for centuries women have been bridling at this…"

    Note the tone that suggests that feminist ideologues are somehow a bad thing but, more importantly, note the assignation of gender discrimination as a problem to women alone. Any man who believes that gender discrimination against women is purely a women's problem just doesn't get it. Damn those pesky women! Interfering with the world as it is arranged to my satisfaction.

  47. Nick Lamb said,

    October 5, 2013 @ 4:13 pm

    "Prescriptivism is harmless when what it prescribes is correct, but should be called out when it's incorrect. It's really that simple."

    Seems like nonsense to me. At least it presume the existence of a platonic (English) grammar against which a prescriptivist rule can be judged "correct" or not independent of itself.

  48. Chris Waters said,

    October 5, 2013 @ 6:37 pm

    Nick Lamb: I happierest correctnot orworder subpilimations.

    I don't think I need to invoke Platonism to diagnose that as incorrect. If you'd prefer to refer to it as a statistically improbable interpolation of existing corpora, I can live with that, but I think you'd be understating the case.

    When I say "incorrect", I mean something that a native speaker would not generate unless his or her tongue were wedged firmly in their cheek. :)

  49. Martha said,

    October 6, 2013 @ 11:15 am

    I'm surprised to learn that anyone uses "he" in a nongendered way, believing it to be nongendered. Whenever I see it written (after stopping short and rereading the sentence to make sure I understand it correctly), my assumption is always that the writer was trying to avoid both the unwieldy "he or she" and the too informal "they" and only begrudgingly left it with "he" alone. I don't avoid using "he" in a nongendered sense to avoid offending feminists' sensibilities; I avoid it because it's completely ungrammatical. Like Chris Waters, I was taught that "he" could be nongendered, but it has never made sense to me, and I always had the feeling that they were just telling us "he" was nongendered as a way to convince us that "he or she" was too awkward.

    Regarding using "it" to refer to infants, it has been my experience that usually the only people who bristle at the use of "it" to refer to a baby are the loved ones of the baby in question. Although I do see Ellen K.'s point. A baby is a person, so why should we call one an "it"? (Although, I have to say, I originally typed the previous sentence as "…why should we call it an "it"?) For me personally, I didn't start calling my niece "she" until I started being around her.

    I don't know if this is new or not, since I have only recently started buying products for babies, but it seems to me that on packages for things like baby toys, as well as (I think, although I can't remember anything specific) on commercials for some infant products, they're using "she" more than I'm comfortable with. Things like, "Your baby's growing, and she needs mental stimulation!" I feel like I encounter the supposedly nongendered "she" in this context more often than in other places. I'm curious as to why. I think this would be a perfect time to use "it."

    Also, I'm American, and "One shouldn't speak with one's mouth full" sounds better to me than "One shouldn't speak with their mouth full," but I'd just use "you," anyway.

  50. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 6, 2013 @ 12:15 pm

    Chris Waters:

    When I say "incorrect", I mean something that a native speaker would not generate unless his or her tongue were wedged firmly in their cheek. :)

    But if a prescription is based on what a native speaker would say, in what sense is it prescriptivism? Do you actually mean 'prescription' rather than 'prescriptivism'?

  51. Chris Waters said,

    October 6, 2013 @ 5:53 pm

    Prescriptivism can match what a native speaker would say. That's different from being based on what a native etc. For example, someone who proclaims that the split infinitive is acceptable because White said so in TEoS is obviously engaged in Argument-from-Authority style prescriptivism, but by coincidence, will be more or less correct.

    (On the other hand, whether White or Strunk, whichever wrote that section on split infinitives, was engaging in a rare moment of descriptivism is a question I can't answer.)

  52. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    October 6, 2013 @ 7:59 pm


    So the use of pronouns in English is equivalent to the question of voting rights and all the rest? I guess in your universe that makes sense, but not in mine.


    OK I think that's a fair definition of prescriptivism, but it actually matches my implicit definition. If "he" is used in two senses, non-gendered and specifically masculine, why do we object to its non-gendered sense? The only way I can make sense of the objection is that there is a belief that non-gendered "he" is the same word as masculine "he", but to me that relies on a prescriptivist approach to meaning, i.e. that the meaning of "he" is determined independently of how it's actually used.

    @Christ Walters:

    I basically agree with all you said. I differ, however, in your restrictive notion of "proper" English. When feminists claim non-gendered "he" is sexist, they imply that it's "improper" according to their definition of proper usage. Their definition of proper usage is obviously not the same as Strunk and White's, but it's still a notion of "proper" English which I would have thought professional linguists would not want to be associated with.

    @Jeremy Wheeler:

    I think all ideologues are dangerous. Ideology is the antithesis of science: science treats facts as basic, and allows facts to test hypotheses; ideology treats itself as basic, and allows itself to test facts. I don't understand why feminist ideology should be exempt from this critique.


    If your intuitions are that non-gendered "he" isn't really non-gendered, I totally accept that. And if the intuitions of most native English speakers are the same, then I concede that it's no longer meaningful to talk about non-gendered he: "he" must be an obligatorily gendered pronoun. This is because I'm a scientist and I accept the facts as they are, not as I want them to be.

    However, IF it turns out that most English speakers do have a non-gendered "he", then I oppose any attempt to censure them on some ideologically-grounded objection to non-gendered "he".

  53. Ellen K. said,

    October 6, 2013 @ 10:44 pm

    There's been some interesting discussion here. Some good things said. And some stuff that seems a little beside the point.

    Jonathan Gress-Wright, my sense if that you have a much more black and white (either/or) view of things than I do. To you, either "he" is two different words, with different meanings, or it "must be an obligatorily gendered pronoun". No in between.

    Me, I think it's all one word. A male pronoun at heart. My view is that the extension of "he" to gender neutral or non-gendered usage (why we use "he" in particular) comes from the view of males as the default gender. A view I don't think is right, but a view I admit to having been guilty of at times. Yes, "he" does get used in contexts where there's an antecedent of unknown or indefinite gender. Those usages do not, in my view, mean it's not a male pronoun. It just means male is the default, so we tend to use the male pronoun in those situations (some of us more than others; and singular "they" for indefinite usage has a long history). "She" is also sometimes used in those situations. That doesn't mean it's become a different word, or that it's become non-gendered. It just means the speaker or writer has, for one reason or another, chosen the female pronoun to refer back to an antecedent of unknown or indefinite gender.

    Notice I say male and female pronoun, not masculine and feminine. That's because I don't see it as an issue of grammatical gender. It's more semantic, like the difference between "son" and "daughter".

  54. Breffni said,

    October 7, 2013 @ 2:29 am


    So the use of pronouns in English is equivalent to the question of voting rights and all the rest?

    No; the point is not the significance of the issue, it's the faulty implicit premises. I thought they'd become obvious if you applied them to claims that you would reject. These are the ones I had in mind:

    1. Where there's historical silence on a social issue, there is no issue.
    2. To raise a previously unrecognised issue is to politicise something that is in reality neutral, or natural, or at any rate apolitical and unproblematic. Which in turn makes you an ideologue.
    3. Even in the historical absence of a critical mass of female opinion formers – political leaders, academics, journalists, essayists, style-guide writers, etc. – we should still expect to see evidence of women over the centuries 'bridling' over issues, if they really are issues of legitimate concern. If there isn't such evidence, see premise number 1.

  55. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    October 7, 2013 @ 5:04 am


    But all your examples are political. For instance, the right to vote is about as political as you can get, so it would be redundant of me to talk about the "politicization" of that issue. Of course it's political, that's the point!

    I just object to politicization of issues that don't need to be politicized. I honestly feel that making a feminist issue out of people's use of pronouns is kind of petty (though if the biggest problem facing women in our society is that our default pronoun is masculine, then that probably indicates a victory for women's rights!).

    What I would support is a critique of any prescriptivist attitude concerning non-gendered "he". Many prescriptivist style-guides mandate "he" where, to me, "they" would be more natural, e.g. "every student brought their book" is more natural to me than "every student brought his book" (or at least no less natural). If "they" is also used in places where I would not use it, e.g. "an unknown student was seen walking their dog at night", then I would also oppose an attempt to enforce "his dog", even though that is what would be more natural for me.

  56. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 7, 2013 @ 7:57 am

    On the other hand, whether White or Strunk, whichever wrote that section on split infinitives, was engaging in a rare moment of descriptivism is a question I can't answer.

    It's White. Strunk does not discuss split infinitives, and indeed uses the word 'infinitive' in a way which is inconsistent with the doctrine.

    There is actually very little prescriptivism in Strunk. A couple of prescriptivist shibboleths, or things that would become prescriptivist shibboleths, find their way in ('fewer' and, perhaps more surprisingly, 'however'), but most of the well-known ones – sentence-initial 'but', final prepositions, the that/which rule – are not there. The word 'grammar' does not occur. The word 'grammatical' does, but only in contexts like 'the grammatical subject', not with implications of correctness. The section on 'usage' is mostly about punctuation. The section on vocabulary says explicitly that it is largely concerned with good writing rather than good English, i.e. the condemned forms are being condemned as sloppy or unclear, not as incorrect. White's revision took the work in a more prescriptivist direction (though not with split infinitives).

  57. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    October 7, 2013 @ 11:12 am

    It's a shame there isn't a 'like' function for comments. If there was I would have liked Breffni's comment, two above this one. There are two reasons: first, it demonstrates exactly the problem with the "feminists are making a fuss over nothing" argument, and second, combined with the response it made me realise there is no point in debating someone who has absolutely no concept of how to argue rationally.

  58. Breffni said,

    October 7, 2013 @ 2:17 pm


    The right to vote is political by definition, as you say, but there are countless other social facts that are only retrospectively recognised as being having been perpetuated by an ideology, albeit an invisible one, in light of political campaigns by women. Access to education is one, division of domestic labour another, reproductive rights still another. So what you have been calling 'politicisation of X' is better thought of, in my view, as 'recognition of the political/ideological nature of X'.

    You believe that objective, descriptive-linguistic facts sanction "gender-neutral 'he'", so you might object that this one really is a a case of politicisation: "gender-neutral 'he'" is a brute fact of English and no more political than the fact that determiners precede nouns. I have a bit more time for that *form* of argument, but I think you're wrong about the facts. Take the "unknown student" example, the one where you prefer "his" to "their", and tweak it slightly:

    An unknown nurse was seen walking his dog at night

    If you heard this, would you assume, without conscious reflection, that the speaker was completely agnostic about the nurse's sex? That is, that the nurse could very well have been a woman, as far as the speaker is concerned? I for one would assume that the speaker had some reason to think it was one of the small minority of male nurses. If you were the speaker and had no basis for thinking that the nurse in question was male, would you be entirely comfortable saying it? If examples like that give you pause, then that seems to me to be evidence that "he" is a masculine pronoun, even for you, and even if you're able to accommodate it in cases where female referents are below a certain threshold of salience.

    I tried to make this point before, in a comment here.

  59. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 7, 2013 @ 3:01 pm

    It is somewhat difficult for me to conjure up the circumstances in which an eyewitness was less sure whether the nighttime dogwalker was male or female than whether the nighttime dogwalker was a student and/or nurse.

  60. Breffni said,

    October 7, 2013 @ 3:43 pm

    OK, try these:

    "In an anonymous blog comment, a nurse vented his spleen at hospital management."

    "Apparently they were three hours delayed because one of the flight attendants lost his footing."

  61. Levantine said,

    October 7, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

    I'm fully convinced by Breffni's sample sentences (not that I was previously an advocate of 'gender-neutral "he"'), and I look forward to the time when singular 'they' becomes standard.

    That said, I'm less sure about the pronoun appropriate for God. I call Him 'He', and I capitalise when I write it down, and though I'd like to think the pronoun functions differently from regular old 'he', I can't pretend that I'm not evoking a male God every time I refer to Him in this way. But calling God 'She' produces a similar reaction in me as one of Breffni's sample sentences, and 'It' is obviously unacceptable. This is one case where inherited convention is always likely to govern my usage.

  62. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 10:04 am

    The flight-attendant profession is less overwhelmingly female than it used to be (male portion now over 25% as of 2007 in the U.S., according to the first semi-reliable-looking source I googled up), and I myself probably have less strong mental image of the generic/default member of that profession being female than I would have a few decades ago. I suppose that there is a "strong" version of claims about the genericity of generic he that would be contradicted by evidence that many speakers have intuitive discomfort with sentences that use "he" for an unspecified/unidentified person who could in principle be of either sex but has quite high (80%+? 90%+?) statistical odds in context of being female. I don't know how much that tells you about "weaker" claims regarding usage in situations where the ex ante odds of either maleness or femaleness are not so heavily skewed.

    Shifting from pronouns to a perhaps-semi-related class of nouns, for example, it has become increasingly acceptable for many (especially female?) AmEng speakers to use "guy(s)" or "dude(s)" to refer in some contexts to females (not even persons of unknown sex, but specific identified addressees uncontroversially known to be female) while retaining other usages of "guy(s)" and "dude(s)" in other syntactic/semantic contexts that only get predicated of males. (There have been previous LL threads on some aspects of these phenomena.) I think the simplest analysis is that these nouns are (at present, for some but not all native speakers) understood as gendered in some contexts and non-gendered in other contexts, and that native speakers turn out to be reasonably competent at keeping the distinctions straight.

  63. Breffni said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 4:03 pm

    But, JWB, how would you formulate a "weak" version of the sex-neutral-"he" hypothesis that doesn't collapse into the alternative hypothesis that there is no sex-neutral "he", just the bog-standard masculine one? It's clear enough what's going on in those examples: "nurse" evokes a set of mostly female referents, which conflicts with the male referent evoked by "he". We already have sex-neutral personal pronouns: I, you, we, they, etc. They're sex-neutral, end of story, no ifs, ands or buts. A sex-neutral "he" worth its salt would be either sex-neutral or not: it can't be mostly sex-neutral but with just enough "masculinity" to cause trouble around the edges.

    And in fact, we have a pretty perfect comparator for the behaviour of the supposedly sex-neutral he:

    "If a nurse has a concern, she should approach her supervisor."
    "If a firefighter has a concern, she should approach her supervisor."

    Exactly the same phenomenon, in mirror image, as with "he". As the subjectively-assessed prevalence of female referents in the evoked set goes down, the weirdness of "she" goes up. This is not evidence that "she" is sex-neutral. It's a feminine pronoun in a natural-gender language, and as expected, it evokes female referents. Same thing for "he". It's just that some have learned to accommodate it as a supposedly inclusive pronoun, counter to our intuitions, but only to the extent that whatever female subset there might be remains politely in the background.

  64. Ellen K. said,

    October 8, 2013 @ 6:02 pm

    That last line in Breffni's post just above is why some of us feel that such usage of "he" should be avoided where possible. It's not about politics. It's about women being equal to men and not having to remain politely in the background.

  65. exoboist said,

    October 9, 2013 @ 11:11 am

    @ other one spoon,

    Off topic, but thanks for the Paul McCartney explanation! I had the exact same misinterpretation of his words, and have always wondered about that.

  66. Jonathon Owen said,

    October 10, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

    I just caught this lovely example at work:

    What does he/she have in his/her closet that they can mix and match? This will extend their basic wardrobe if they can interchange slacks/skirts or blouses/jackets. It will also extend the life of their clothing. Basic, neutral color palettes make good staple pieces.

    The writer starts out with he/she and quickly lapses into singular they, presumably because the former is so tiring.

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