Gender neutral pronouns: If anyone needs help, <they> ...

funfun86

Senior Member
USA/English
I frequently use "them" and "they" as general 3rd person singular pronouns to mean "him or her", but my Microsoft Word tries to correct me. Below are some examples:

If *anyone* asked for help she would comply, but instead of offering it she would yell at *them* for substandard performance.

If *anyone* needs help, *they* should ask.


I'm a native speaker, but I wasn't sure if this is the type of "mistake" that native speakers often don't know they're making, such as the confusion of I and me.

Thanks!
 
  • Old Novice

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    Formal usage does not accept them/they as substitutes for him/her or he/she. However, the usage is pretty common in spoken English, and some people would like to bring it back into formal use as a way to avoid gender preferences in language. A thread on that topic is here.
     

    . 1

    Banned
    Australian Australia
    Formal usage does not accept them/they as substitutes for him/her or he/she. However, the usage is pretty common in spoken English, and some people would like to bring it back into formal use as a way to avoid gender preferences in language. A thread on that topic is here.
    That thread is closed and does not seem to have been a particularly peaceful exchange of concepts.

    I think that the use of they and them to replace she/he or him/her is quite accepted now despite any previous rules to the contrary.

    The words make sentences flow and easier to write and far easier to avoid difficult situations regarding implied gender.

    .,,
     

    Hakro

    Senior Member
    Finnish - Finland
    This has nothing to do with Microsoft Word but there's another example of using "they/them" for 3rd person singular: It is generally used when speaking about a company. For example:
    "Company XX has a new product and they are marketing it..."
    instead of:
    "Company XX has a new product and it is marketing it..."
    This is more and more common also in Finnish and in Swedish but I haven't seen it as often in French and in German.
    This is not a real problem and I understand where the idea comes from (there are many people who do the marketing) but to my ear it sounds illogical and therefore grammatically wrong.
     

    Old Novice

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    I think that the use of they and them to replace she/he or him/her is quite accepted now despite any previous rules to the contrary.

    The words make sentences flow and easier to write and far easier to avoid difficult situations regarding implied gender.

    .,,

    I agree fully with the second point, and with the first with respect to ordinary conversation. However, :) in formal and sometimes in less formal written work, (such as an article for a professional journal or perhaps a paper for an English teacher), the old rule is still likely to apply, at least in AmE, if not in AuE. (For example, the closed thread I referenced in my earlier post started with a question from just such a setting, in which "she" had been used instead of "he" to represent an unidentified person in a professional article.)

    So I'm afraid I think that we still have a ways to go before the language settles into a uniform treatment of this issue.
     

    funfun86

    Senior Member
    USA/English
    So, in short, you guys wouldn't recommend using "they" or "them" instead of "he or she" in a college paper?

    I'm actually writing it with ESL students as an audience, so I want to model proper grammar. ; )
     

    TheMexican

    Member
    Spanish Mexico
    Well, the pronoun should always agree with your subject. Anyone or anybody are singular terms and therefore cannot be substituted with they. I have never like using "he/she" or "him/her" - it's so cumbersome! But using either he or she in every instance doesn't seem right either.
     

    mccatlover

    New Member
    English, USA
    :idea: This is how I have found myself getting around this in formal documents (if your explicit goal is not to teach this point)—I re-write the surrounding context in order that I can avoid both technically incorrect pronouns (they) and awkward forms (he/she). It may be the coward’s way out, but it works for me!
     

    . 1

    Banned
    Australian Australia
    :idea: This is how I have found myself getting around this in formal documents (if your explicit goal is not to teach this point)—I re-write the surrounding context in order that I can avoid both technically incorrect pronouns (they) and awkward forms (he/she). It may be the coward’s way out, but it works for me!
    This is the best piece of advice I have read regarding this minor but genuinely irritatiing aspect of the evolution of English.

    Well said mccatlover.

    .,,
     

    gaer

    Senior Member
    US-English
    :idea: This is how I have found myself getting around this in formal documents (if your explicit goal is not to teach this point)—I re-write the surrounding context in order that I can avoid both technically incorrect pronouns (they) and awkward forms (he/she). It may be the coward’s way out, but it works for me!
    I do the same thing. There is almost always a way to avoid this and other problems like it, although it takes a bit of thinking. :)

    Gaer
     

    chesty

    Senior Member
    english
    Hello.


    I was wondering whether it is correct or acceptable in ENGLISH to refer to someone in the third person singular as 'they'.

    It could happen that one might wish to withhold a person's gender whilst referring to them in the third person singular. Obviously, neither 'he' nor 'she' can be of use in such a case as these are gender specific terms.

    For example, when addressing a mixed audience, one could say:

    - "One person in this room is guilty, and that person must return the stolen item by midnight."

    But is it correct or acceptable to say:

    - "One person in this room is guilty, and they must return the stolen item by midnight." ?


    Furthermore, if English does allow for such a usage, does it have a name?


    Thank you.
     

    Rodner

    Member
    English, USA
    Technically it is never correct to use "they" as a third person singular pronoun, although people do so all the time, especially when speaking. To be correct, one should choose either "he" or "she," or to be politically correct "he or she." Or, alternatively, one can circumvent the issue altogether by using something like "that person," as in your example.
     

    Dimcl

    Senior Member
    Canadian English
    Hello.


    I was wondering whether it correct or acceptable in ENGLISH to refer to someone in the third person singular as 'they'.

    It could happen that one might wish to withhold a person's gender whilst referring to them in the third person singular. Obviously, neither 'he' nor 'she' can be of use in such a case as these are gender specific terms.

    For example, when addressing a mixed audience, one could say:

    - "One person in this room is guilty, and that person must return the stolen item by midnight."

    But is it correct or acceptable to say:

    - "One person in this room is guilty, and they must return the stolen item by midnight." ?


    Furthermore, if English does allow for such a usage, does it have a name?

    Thank you.

    Yes, it can be used in this context and is simply a pronoun.

    Dictionary.com states:

    "Long before the use of generic "he" was condemned as sexist, the pronouns they, their, and them were used in educated speech and in all but the most formal writing to refer to indefinite pronouns and to singular nouns of general personal reference, probably because such nouns are often not felt to be exclusively singular: If anyone calls, tell them I'll be back at six. Everyone began looking for their books at once. Such use is not a recent development, nor is it a mark of ignorance. Shakespeare, Swift, Shelley, Scott, and Dickens, as well as many other English and American writers, have used they and its forms to refer to singular antecedents. Already widespread in the language (though still rejected as ungrammatical by some), this use of they, their, and them is increasing in all but the most conservatively edited American English. This increased use is at least partly impelled by the desire to avoid the sexist implications of he as a pronoun of general reference
     

    . 1

    Banned
    Australian Australia
    Yes, it can be used in this context and is simply a pronoun.

    Dictionary.com states:

    "Long before the use of generic "he" was condemned as sexist, the pronouns they, their, and them were used in educated speech and in all but the most formal writing to refer to indefinite pronouns and to singular nouns of general personal reference, probably because such nouns are often not felt to be exclusively singular: If anyone calls, tell them I'll be back at six. Everyone began looking for their books at once. Such use is not a recent development, nor is it a mark of ignorance. Shakespeare, Swift, Shelley, Scott, and Dickens, as well as many other English and American writers, have used they and its forms to refer to singular antecedents. Already widespread in the language (though still rejected as ungrammatical by some), this use of they, their, and them is increasing in all but the most conservatively edited American English. This increased use is at least partly impelled by the desire to avoid the sexist implications of he as a pronoun of general reference
    Hear hear.
    I think that they said it well.

    .,,
     

    mplsray

    Senior Member
    But is it correct or acceptable to say:

    - "One person in this room is guilty, and they must return the stolen item by midnight." ?


    Furthermore, if English does allow for such a usage, does it have a name?


    I agree with the discussion Dimcl quoted on the issue. That discussion, however, did not explicitly mention the name of this use of they: It's called the generic "they."
     

    Hockey13

    Senior Member
    AmEnglish/German
    I agree with the discussion Dimcl quoted on the issue. That discussion, however, did not explicitly mention the name of this use of they: It's called the generic "they."

    Something similar to this is the editorial you. Si impersonale in Italian.

    In Venice, you don't just go swimming in the water.
    =
    In Venice, one doesn't just go swimming in the water.
     

    lexicalia

    Member
    American English
    Yes, it can be used in this context and is simply a pronoun.

    Dictionary.com states:

    "Long before the use of generic "he" was condemned as sexist, the pronouns they, their, and them were used in educated speech and in all but the most formal writing to refer to indefinite pronouns and to singular nouns of general personal reference, probably because such nouns are often not felt to be exclusively singular: If anyone calls, tell them I'll be back at six. Everyone began looking for their books at once. Such use is not a recent development, nor is it a mark of ignorance. Shakespeare, Swift, Shelley, Scott, and Dickens, as well as many other English and American writers, have used they and its forms to refer to singular antecedents. Already widespread in the language (though still rejected as ungrammatical by some), this use of they, their, and them is increasing in all but the most conservatively edited American English. This increased use is at least partly impelled by the desire to avoid the sexist implications of he as a pronoun of general reference

    Thanks for this info!:) People use "they" for "he" or "she" all the time in spoken English (myself included), but I always found it odd and wondered what the official guideline was. Seeing as we don't have many other options besides "he or she", which can get a little long-winded if overused at one time, "they" is the next best option. Good to know so many respected writers have also used it and it's not incorrect after all. Thanks again Dimcl.
     

    Rodner

    Member
    English, USA
    Dictionary.com states:

    "Long before the use of generic "he" was condemned as sexist, the pronouns they, their, and them were used in educated speech and in all but the most formal writing to refer to indefinite pronouns and to singular nouns of general personal reference, probably because such nouns are often not felt to be exclusively singular: If anyone calls, tell them I'll be back at six. Everyone began looking for their books at once. Such use is not a recent development, nor is it a mark of ignorance. Shakespeare, Swift, Shelley, Scott, and Dickens, as well as many other English and American writers, have used they and its forms to refer to singular antecedents. Already widespread in the language (though still rejected as ungrammatical by some), this use of they, their, and them is increasing in all but the most conservatively edited American English. This increased use is at least partly impelled by the desire to avoid the sexist implications of he as a pronoun of general reference


    These authors may very well have used "they" as a 3rd person singular pronoun in their writing. I would wager, however, that they did so in order to make the dialogue between fictional characters sound more natural; fiction writers have always used coloquial language in dialogue in order to achieve this end. I believe I have rarely if ever seen "they" used as a singular pronoun in academic papers (written in "proper" English), and I was always taught that such use is incorrect. But whatever, languages change I suppose.
     

    gwrthgymdeithasol

    Senior Member
    English, Wales
    I believe I have rarely if ever seen "they" used as a singular pronoun in academic papers (written in "proper" English), and I was always taught that such use is incorrect.

    You were taught wrong. There's no ultimate authority in language usage to say what's correct or not, at least outside of an Orwellian society. 'They' is certainly used this way in linguistics papers. It's funny how so many people seem willing to put their linguistic faith in the edicts of a few self-styled mavens and their disciples...
     
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