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 is the acquisitions editor for Catholic Answers.

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