In defense of “they”

What is all the fuss about “they”?

The Washington Post reported recently that the American Dialect Society announced that “they” was the “Word of the Year” because of its growing acceptability as a pronoun to replace the cumbersome “he/she” (and, by extension, “their” replacing “his/her”). The Washington Post notes that it adopted the use of “they” in their style guide in 2015, though recommends generally trying to avoid it.

Grammar Girl also recently did a podcast about the use of “they” as a singular pronoun in response and generally agrees with this stance. 

This is an issue I found myself discussing with my students from time to time in composition classes and this is what I tell them:

More and more, the use of “they” in this way is gaining ground and acceptability, though most experts recommend that you generally try to avoid it. In most cases, you can avoid the “pronoun problem” by rewriting the sentence.

What is the pronoun problem? It is the problem of how to navigate a situation where the gender is unknown, or he/she otherwise won’t fit (as in recent discourses around transgender people). A while ago, it was common to use “he” as a generic pronoun, as in the sentence:

Every student must bring his pencil.

With the rise of consciousness of how women and girls are erased in language, most writers avoid this. The above sentence is easily fixed by using “a” instead of his (and thus avoiding the awkward “his/her”).

Using “they” would look something like this: “Every student must bring their pencil.” Of course, again, this is easily corrected: “All students must bring their pencils.” Still, there are times when it may be awkward to reword sentences to avoid his/her or he/she, and this is where the plural pronoun really comes in handy.

I generally find “they” acceptable in my writing classes, explaining that it has become widely used *and* that the meaning is usually clear. That is my golden rule: is it clear? Because good writing is supposed to be clear, not opaque. And as Zinsser reminds us, more clutter=less clear. To my mind, “they,” when used as a singular pronoun, is almost always clear. Since we are talking generics, the singular/plural issue is often irrelevant.

There are still people who will pooh-pooh the use of “they” in this way. Grammar Girl says to use it if you are feeling “reckless and bold”– and if your style guide and editor allows it! (So much for reckless and bold.) As for me, I say, Is it clear? Yes? Then go for it.

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