To each his or her own (gender-neutral pronoun)

Certainly one of the English language’s most charming grammatical dictums (okay, likely its only charming grammatical dictum) is this: “The male embraces the female.” For hundreds of years, the masculine pronoun did double duty, referring specifically to persons of the male sex and generally to persons of either sex. As such arrangements go, the “universal he” was a happy and practical one.

But we know what happened next: the female shook herself free from the embrace, got a job, and became a single parent—spawning gender-inclusive brats ranging from the unwieldy (“he or she,” “his/her”) to the schizophrenic (“s(he)”). And of course the ubiquitous singular “they,” now so ingrained in our speech and writing habits that it’s often used even when the subject could only be male—for example, in reference to pro football players—lest the mere exclusionary sound of the male pronoun offend, even when used correctly.

Then there are the tireless efforts of pronoun researchers, working round the clock in secret labs leased from NORAD, to come up with novel solutions that avoid sexism on the one hand and sentences like “England expects that every person will do h(er)is duty” on the other. Unfortunately, as ideas go the Spivak Pronoun and other invented systems rank right up there with Esperanto, the French Republican Calendar, or metric time.

As both a stickler for usage and a reflexive opponent of feminist silliness, I take a special interest in this problem. What will be our gender-neutral pronoun? The Grammar Curmudgeon makes a plea to return to the universal “he,” but I suspect that culturally we’ve passed the point of no return there. The usual alternatives—whether neologisms, clumsy hybrids or conspicuous circumlocutions, or a sort of lingual affirmative-action program in which we all agree to let the female embrace the male for a while—are all wearisome.

I wonder if it’s not time just to bless the (ab)use of “they” and be done with it, like we did with Communion in the hand or altar girls. There’s no reason why the word can’t have two meanings. Other thoughts?

Todd M. Aglialoro


Todd M. Aglialoro is the acquisitions editor for Catholic Answers.

  • Margaret C

    But we know what happened next: the female shook herself free from the embrace, got a job, and became a single parent

  • Zoe

    Appreciated this post. I’m supportive of using “they” for both singular and plural because it’s a better solution than the he/she or s(he) awfulness. I think going back to “he” is just not going to happen. I myself go back and forth using he and she, or do gymnastics to try to avoid using either one. A pain.

  • antigon

    Which, being no Lefevbrist, I ask having not blessed, but rather avoided all but obligatory (funeral) Masses with cuties.
    And though not by itself, since the whole (wildly successful) purpose in promoting hand Communion was to diminish faith in, well, the deepest Reality, it seems best to avoid reception when thus confronted.
    The grammar problems seem more intractable, & the inclination is to join you in but continuing to stew over them. As to the Mass, however: since a Catholic is free to hold the whole 1969 transformation a contradiction to the Council’s dictums, to the vows Paul VI took upon becoming His Holiness, in fact a concoction by apparent enemies of the Faith intended to destroy Her, & since all that is true, one’s surprised you missed that (despite efforts by which the faithful under the Arian bishops had it comparatively easy) we haven’t quite blessed all that after all.

  • RH

    Those who advocate the continued usage of male-universal language seem indifferent to the historical assumptions embedded in this language. Regarding the male pronoun as “neutral” is an inevitable outgrowth of the notion that to be male is normative, while to be female is to be the ‘Other.’ The dictum “the male embraces the female” perfectly encapsulates the dominant-subordinate gender relationship implied by this mindset. Is this really the attitude we want to perpetuate as a society? (I suspect Mr. Aglialoro’s attitude toward working women and single mothers answers this question.)

  • Scott Johnston

    I’m not a linguist. But I’m pretty sure that prior to the modern communication technology of the 20th century, grammar changes occurred in a natural way, from the “bottom up.” In other words, they were reflections of real shifts in usage taking hold gradually among increasing numbers of native speakers of a language, until the new way became the norm and the old way became archaic.

    This is not how the singular male pronoun has been dropped from doing double duty in English as a collective singular. It was not a natural shift, gradually taking place from the ground up. It was imposed artificially by a small minority–forced upon the general public by radical feminist ideologues in journalism and Academia.

    A mere snap of their disgruntled fingers, and style guides for major media organizations and other important reference works were changed. But, these changes did not reflect a real change in ordinary usage (unless the only ones who count are the tiny minority of elite feminist academics and journalists).

    This shift in usage was an imposition, deliberately forcing a change where none was desired by the average English speaking person. I’ll bet it’s the first time in the grammatical history of English that a major shift in grammar has taken place that was not an organic development bubbling up from the bottom, but a completely artificial imposition upon the masses by a few. This was only possible because of technology. The shift is totally artificial and forced and was never desired in a natural, unforced way by most English speakers. The absurdities we have to go through to compensate are also totally contrary to how authentic grammar shifts normally take place. Natural, unforced language shifts tend toward making things easier, shorter, simpler. Natural shifts do not tend to make ordinary usage more cumbersome and more vague. Yet this is what we have.

    A small handful of ideologues, because their ideas could be spread easily by technology (and because major media organizations quickly embraced their artificial changes), have in essence dictated to an entire culture a major change in language that the vast majority had no genuine desire for.

    Every Sunday Mass I am painfully reminded of how absurd this all is. When we recite the Nicene Creed, saying, “for us men and for our salvation . . .” How long before we must artificially change the Creed also to reflect this silly, non-issue that was forced upon us, an invented issue where there was none? Even now, do the vast majority of people attending Sunday Mass gasp inwardly and say to themselves, “Oh how horrible, referring only to men in the Creed!” I think not. Which only goes to prove the artificiality of the denigration of the male collective singular pronoun.

  • dr pence

    Neither the abandonment of the male representational pronoun nor the insertion of altar girls are practices to concede. We should learn how to reason properly about their meaning.
    For a religion positing that God became man and that in Christ there is neither male nor female ,it seems the inclusive embracing representational male is more than a matter of opinion. It is a central incarnational dogma. We have a word for the fallen offspring of Adam and Eve–it is humanity. We have a word for the restoration of fallen humanity in the incarnate word and that is a Christ centered mankind.
    Altar girls and female readers are not a settled “issue” but an iconic distraction from the altar’s locus of the feminine. In the great liturgical and architectual Catholic symphony, it is the tabernacle which demonstrates that which is hidden– interiority. That is the Marian femininity which we must reimage in our life of worship. Then we will be in the proper posture to await when He comes again for us all.
    Brother Todd! This is no time to give up on language or liturgy-we are just now figuring how how to defend the practices of past generations which we received but did not fully understand.Errors give us a chance to articulate deeper truths. Thanks for providing the opportunity.

  • Aaron B.

    Altar girls and Communion in the hand are indults that have already peaked and are on their way out, so there might still be hope for the inclusive “he.” The worst thing about “they” is that it seems to be ruining people’s ability to get subject-verb agreement right. If you use “they” as a singular, is the verb singular or plural? Usage varies, and people end up overusing it where it doesn’t make sense, the way they use “whom” as a subject because they don’t understand the who/whom difference anymore.

    It’s interesting to see how language resists certain changes. We come up with new words for things all the time — how many people probably think “strategery” is a real word now? — but we can’t seem to come up with a simple pronoun we like to refer to “person of undetermined sex.” Another example is “significant other.” You’d think after a couple decades of socially-approved cohabitation, we’d have come up with a simpler word for that. Maybe it’s because on some level we don’t approve of it enough to enshrine the idea in language; maybe likewise we don’t want to officially give in to the feminists, so we make do with “they.”

    Is this foolishness unique to English? In Latin, food (cibus) is masculine, water (aqua) is feminine, and wine (vinum) is neuter. The Holy Trinity, made up of three masculine persons (Pater, Filius, Spiritus), is feminine (Sancta Trinitas)! It’d have to be a lot harder to get exercised about gender usage in a language like that.

  • Rich Browner

    I resonate with RH, above.

  • Joshua

    In Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, the suggested pronoun is per. While the rest of the book is a drug-induced trip, her suggestion for a dual gender pronoun isn’t half bad.

  • Todd M. Aglialoro

    Scott: that’s an excellent point about the unique circumstances of the shift away from the universal “he”. A development of language that makes writing and speaking harder, more inconvenient, and less fluid can only be the result of wrongheaded meddling, not natural processes.

    Dr Pence and others: I don’t mean to defend the practices of Communion in the hand or altar girls, but simply to recognize that they were widespread

  • Harri Laaksonen

    Lots of debate and water under the bridge have passed over the past 50 or so years when the question of gender neutral pronouns became part of the general discussion.

    As a speaker of Finnish (teaching EFL) I will put in my .02

  • Todd M. Aglialoro

    Harri: English speakers have the same funny results when learning languages that assign genders to nouns. Our possessive pronouns are gender-specific to the subject, for example, not the object as in Romance languages and German.

    I don’t think “you” and “thee” were ever used as singular and plural (correct me if I’m wrong). There HAS been an evolution of those words in modern English, however: in Shakespeare, for example, “thee” and “thou” were used with inferiors. Today we have turned that on its head and made them formal (most commonly for addressing God respectfully).

  • jmc

    While I too am a fan of the universal “he”, this post and some of its comments make it seem like the pronoun actually does marginalize women, rather than the other way around… all the hand-waving about disgruntled feminists, women with jobs, altar girls, and the universal masculine pronoun being “central incarnational dogma” (!) serves only to make it appear that the reason grammar sticklers want the universal “he” back is because they want language to reflect that men are superior.

    Whereas the best argument for bringing back the universal “he” is precisely that it doesn’t actually make a statement about the superiority of one sex over the other – it can be either gender-specific or gender-neutral. If you interpret the death of the universal “he” as a blow to masculinity, aren’t you really agreeing with the feminists who want it gone?

  • Todd M. Aglialoro

    jmc: There’s a difference, I think, between preferring the universal “he” because one considers it an icon of male domination, and preferring it because one doesn’t want to give in (as a matter of principle) to the absurd demands of modern feminism. Even if those in the latter camp may take the issue as an apt moment for discussing sexual roles and differences in general.

    As for “women getting jobs,” this only came up because of the strained conceit (the female pronoun “got a job”) I used in my original post, which someone else seized on. I don’t think anyone in this thread disapproves of women working, as such.

  • Harri Laaksonen


    If you know French, I know just enough to get into trouble quickly, you notice the relationship between the familiar (singular) “Tu” and the more formal (plural) “Vous” to the English Thee/thou and You.

    This same relationship holds true in most other languages and certainly in Finnish where the singular “Sin

  • Todd M. Aglialoro

    Harri: Yes, I know some French. But again, in English the phenomenon is inverted. French prayers traditionally used the formal “vous” for God, only switching in recent times (among more modern-minded Catholics) to the familiar “tu,” since it’s “plus intime.” This is part of a larger theological shift from emphasis on God’s transcendence to emphasis on his immanence, which shift has been reflected in every Christian culture and in many areas besides language.

    But in English we have taken what was once the familiar (thou/thee) and made it the formal. Modern-minded Catholics call God “you” to express a more familiar relationship with the divine, whereas the tradition-minded stick with “thou/thee.” (In some circles it’s a kind of shibboleth: when you say the Our Father, are you a “you” Catholic or a “thou/thee” Catholic?) If, as you say, “thou/thee” became popular 400 years ago in order to express familiarity with God, it’s all the more remarkable how much that has changed.

  • Harri Laaksonen

    Here is a link to an interesting article that is in today’s Toronto Globe and Mail

  • Michael Dudek

    It’s amazing how, in spite of how often he’s written here, some people still don’t get Todd’s tongue in cheek humor. “Lighten up, Francis.” There are far more important things in the world than you gender-neutrality types getting up in arms about the false perception of male domination that is perpetuated by the simple use of the word “he.” It’s often the same ilk who clammer for female “womyn” priests, all the while not understanding in the slightest why a woman cannot BE a priest (here’s a hint: it’s related to why men can’t be mothers! Oh the horrors, oh the discrimination! Who do I complain to about THAT injustice?? /sarcasm)

    What makes me smile though is that for all of you who are offended by the use of the word “he” and have gone to great lengths to excise it from the English language (esp from the liturgy and her hymns -oh my gosh, did I just say “her?” How demeaning to women to refer to the holy sacrifice of the mass in feminine terms! /sarcasm), there are many more of you who love the use of the term “he” and want it to be preserved. I join my lack of voice with you as we boycott the signing of “Let There Be Peace on Earth” and other cheesiness that has been neutered in hopes of not hurting anyone’s feelings.

    And I think if we were to scratch the surface deep enough, we’d really get to some key sticking points about all of this mumbo-jumbo, like not wanting to refer to God the Father as “He” anymore. C’mon, let’s get right on down to brass tacks on this issue. We cannot mold God into our own image, as much as we’d like to. It’s been tried before people – don’t you remember? Crack open that sexist book called “The Bible” and you’ll find this story repeated ad nauseum.

    As a parting shot, I refer those of you who took offense to Todd’s piece to Paul Quay’s excellent book on the meaning of Christian sexuality, published by Ignatius. It’s not a long read and I believe you’ll find it very enlightening.

  • Michael Dudek

    i was so exasperated by these comments, my spell checking went out the gender-neutral window. mea culpa, porcissimus.

  • K

    I was once told a story in which the faculty at a large Catholic university were discussing this very problem. After someone offered the s/he option, another faculty member suggested that if they wanted to avoid discriminating against women, they also ought to avoid discrimination against the neuter as well. Thus the pronoun should read s[slash]h[slash]it. The faculty meeting devolved into laughter and the issue was not brought up again.

    Only the ridiculous is a proper response to the ridiculous.

  • Michael Dudek

    for the nice laugh.

  • Jeffrey Pinyan

    I couldn’t help but notice that, in your comment, you used the words “male” and “female”:

    Regarding the male pronoun as “neutral” is an inevitable outgrowth of the notion that to be male is normative, while to be female is to be the ‘Other.’

    Is not use of words like “woman” and “female” (which contain “man” and “male”) part of that “dominant-subordinate gender relationship”? Best avoid continued use of those words, then.

  • Rachel

    there is also ‘man’ within ‘human’ and ‘humanity.’

    As a Gen Y young woman, I have never been offended by the universal use of ‘he’; in fact, taking such offense has always baffled me. ‘He’ is even within ‘she’! In my French class in high school, I learned it is the same in French. The singular masculine form is used when it could refer to one of either sex, ‘il’, and the same goes for plural, as in a group of both men and women – ‘ils’.

    I am happily a fan of the page “Save the Masculine Pronoun” on Facebook, and advocate for a reasoned return to the universal ‘he.’ It makes for much more fluid speaking and writing. I note that it would sometimes seem those advocating for more “inclusive” language are ashamed of being women, hence the need for the bizarre “womyn”, or they are so filled with hate for men that they just cannot bear for the word to also be in the word given to them, either. How sad.

    I think it just shows how we need each other. We need both male and female for a complete humanity, a complete mankind. ‘Mankind’ has never been used to refer only to the male sex. You have this 20-year-old’s support for the male-embracing-the-female use of ‘he’! Thank you for writing this. If an alternative must be used, ‘they’ does seem most logical, if awkward. I myself use it. smilies/tongue.gif

  • Michael PS

    I recall being faced with a pretty conundrum once, when I had to reply to a letter from a female French lawyer, who addressed me as Mon cher confr

  • JMC

    Scott Johnston hit the nail on the head up there, when he explained how this is the first language change that did not occur naturally. He particularly grabbed my attention when he pointed out that, while natural language change tends to make things easier and smoother, imposed changes make them more cumbersome. I’ve been saying that about ALL “political correct” phrases, not just the gender-related ones, for years now. The basic rule seems to be, the more cumbersome it is to say, the more “politically correct” it is. It’s time to force some sanity back into the issue. We grammar curmudgeons need to work to keep the universal “he” alive as long as possible, and maybe, just maybe, if/when sanity returns to this topsy-turvy world of ours, it will still be just observable enough for someone to say, “Hey, now THAT’s an elegant solution!”

  • Terentia

    Back in 1970, when I was young with a skull full of mush, I was active in the feminist movement. I attended NOW sponsored “consiousness raising” meetings and read everything I could get my hands on from that perspective. This was before abortion became the be-all and end-all for feminists. The big issues then were: changing rape laws and changing language. If you are old enough, you may remember the uproar over such words as fireman, policeman, mail man, chairman and the insistance that “man” be replaced by “person, as: police person, fire person, mail person, etc. What you probably don’t know, if you weren’t part of the circle, is that the goal was specifically related to the anti Judeo-Christian bias of the leaders. It was specifically said, in more than one meeting, by more than one person, that the ultimate goal in changing the language was to destroy the idea of Father God. That was one of the reasons (along with abortion, marxism and the general deceptiveness of the movement) that I am no longer a feminist. When I hear someone use bowderlized liturgical language, I always wonder if she (usually) is fifth column or just a useful idiot.

  • AC

    I guess while I was taught he for all cases where the geneder is not specifically known as 3rd person female, and think that it sounds better than using a singular they, the author (Todd) has brought up a valid point that our language changes and we are now with a singular gender neutral ‘they’.

    This is not the first time that our language has droped a singular pronoun. I relize that thee may not recognize it, but thou is 2nd person singular, and was used as such when the Douey-Reimes version of the bible were translated. (and it’s often quoted child King James -KJV uses large portions of the DR as not just source, but uncredited quotes Today a lawsuit over fair use and copywrite would have occured and been lost by the KJV translators)

    Maybe in another 400 years it won’t be I, and me but us and we and thus will end singular pronouns entirely.

    note: my copy editrix wife will prevent me from using they in all but the most unedited of writings.

  • Michael PS

    Curiously, the French feminists adopted exactly the opposite approach and insisted on feminine forms for the names of occupations, The government even issued a style guide Femme, j’ecriis ton nom [Woman, I write your name]

    I have actually seen un hommme-grenouille and une femme-genouille to describe what I suppose we must call police frog-persons, searching for a body in the Seine.

    Of course, the old guard at the French Academy insist that gender is a quality of nouns, not individuals, pointing to such traditional feminine nouns as la recrue the recruit or la vigie the sentry and, of course la personne the person

    One is tempted to believe that, for feminists, the desire to change existing usage was more important than the form the change actually took

  • David Allison

    There is an extensive literature on the acceptability – indeed the excellent pedigree – of the use of “they” in the singular. Personally, I can’t see what the problem is.
    David Allison

  • Bono95

    I know this is kind of an irrelevant point, but I do not like the metric system a bit and have often before thanked goodness that no one tried to come up with metric units for time. But if that one little remark was right, it seems someone did, and it failed. Perhaps the universe just isn’t metric, then?