What is the gender neutral they and why does it matter?
In English, the most commonly used pronouns are he, she, they, and it. Although English does not have a designated personal pronoun for a gender-neutral or subject of unknown gender, “they” has long been an English speaker’s go-to for many situations. When “they” is used to signal a single person, this usage isn’t always considered “proper” English grammar since “they” is more frequently used as the plural pronoun.
However, as a Writing Center consultant, I am a big advocate for the gender neutral “they.”
For starters, other substitutes can be clunky and awkward in both speech and text. Substitutes such as “he/she” don’t read easily, but also are limiting. Other substitutes, like mixing the use of “she” and “he” throughout the text can cause confusion and require extra thought to balance out the usage. “They,” despite its grammatical origins, works as an easy-to-read substitute.
However, there are other more pressing reasons to use the gender neutral they.
Using “he/she” or arbitrarily assigning a gender to an individual can be limiting and potentially harmful. Not all individuals identify as male or female, and some may even identify as both or neither. Using “he/she” erases nonbinary gender identities, while using “they” is open and inclusive. When in doubt, I always use they as both a default pronoun and to be more inclusive than the traditional “he/she.” (For further information about gender identities, see this interactive booklet). Continue reading