I’m wondering about your approach to gendered pronouns. I usually use “she” and “her” to refer to (say) a hypothetical reader; however, on multiple occasions I’ve had an editor change this to “he or she” or “his or her.” If defaulting to “he” now feels gratingly tone-deaf, is defaulting to “she” a healthy correction or (as some editors seem to think) an overcompensation? Should we alternate examples with male and female pronouns? Just go with singular “they”? Something else?
– from Veronica Rose Alfano.
Dr. Editor’s response:
There’s nothing wrong with the singular “they.” English lacks a good gender-neutral or gender-unknown pronoun, with “it” sounding too impersonal, and “one” too stuffy and faux-regal. “They” away!
I understand the impulse behind your editor’s attempted correction. Most likely, they changed your phrasing in an attempt to avoid confusion, out of concern that some readers may think that “she” might refer to some woman described earlier in the text. Such a concern didn’t hold when “he” was the pronoun of choice — yet “she” doesn’t carry the same seeming neutrality that “he” used to, back when male was the default and anything else seemed alternative or abnormal.
To put it another way: in the second sentence in the paragraph above, had I written, “she changed your phrasing,” some readers may have suspected that I think all editors are female; if I had written “he changed your phrasing,” you and many others would accuse me of being “gratingly tone-deaf” to the norms of academic writing, which no longer assume the scholar or their audience to be male by default. So using either “he” or “she” alone isn’t the answer here.
Why we “they”
“They” is a more-than-adequate substitute for instances in which you don’t know the gender of a person who figures in your writing.
Why not “he or she”? Or “s/he”? Or, why don’t I suggest alternating between examples that feature male and then female pronouns? For the final of these options, inconsistency in pronoun use can create confusion — your reader may be mistakenly believe, for example, that the gender matters in your examples, or that there are differences between Hypothetical Person A, “she,” and Hypothetical Person B, “he.” So alternating is out. What about the first two options?
There are, of course, many people who are left out of “he or she” and “s/he” constructions. If you are a scholar of Cree, Inuit, or Kanienʼkehá꞉ka people or cultural productions, your “he or she” will leave out any readers who may be aayahkwew, sipiniq, or onón:wat respectively. Even if you aren’t a scholar of Indigenous studies, you may still have readers who are kathoey or fa’afafine or kinnar or māhū or genderqueer or at some other place on or beyond the gender spectrum. If you mean to refer to anybody, then ensure that you’re using the gender pronoun that encompasses to everybody: the singular “they.”
The “they” precedent
It’s not difficult to search online for instances of the singular “they” being used in historical contexts. A 2016 article from The Guardian cites 75 instances of the singular “they” in Pride and Prejudice. The Oxford English Dictionary provides a Middle English singular “they” from William and the Werewolf: “‘Hastely hiȝed eche . . . þei neyȝþed so neiȝh” — and because I don’t understand 14th century English, I’m happy to trust the OED’s assurance that the example is relevant. If any number of online sources are to be believed, the singular “they” can also be found in works by many eminent dead people: Byron, Chaucer, Dickens, Ruskin, Shakespeare, Thackeray, and on and on.
But I’m not persuaded that we need these historical precedents. Why do we need appeal to an earlier usage for the singular “they” to be appropriate in our era?
We use all kinds of words in ways that don’t have historical precedents — and not only when describing people. We don’t have to harken back to Austen to know that “key” is a great word to describe the little metal thing that I insert into the USB port in my computer. (And don’t get me started on “port” and “computer,” both of which were used differently before the digital revolution.)
Languages are not fixed things; we have the ability to adapt old words to fit new purposes. “They” would be a great choice as a singular pronoun even if there weren’t lots of dead people who used it that way hundreds of years ago.
Your authorial voice has power
When you submit to an academic journal, you have power over the text that is published under your name. Sure, you may need to conform to a particular citation format, and house style may dictate whether you get to capitalize “modernism” or hyphenate “well-being,” but for language that has political implications, you can and should make a case for your preferred word or formatting.
“We have a house style, but we also have real conversations with authors when their writing does not follow our style,” says Dr. Laura Moss, professor of English at the University of British Columbia, and editor of the journal Canadian Literature. Dr. Moss especially appreciates hearing about word or format choices that may have important political implications or historical nuances: “We keep learning from these and so approximately once a year we update our house style manual.”
Similarly, Dr. Emmanuel Hogg, managing editor of Social History and president of the Canadian Association of Learned Journals, says that it is “rather common [at Social History] to permit authors to insist on certain spellings as a matter of argument.” His publication doesn’t want “authors to feel as though they need to simply follow the rules, especially if they feel the rules do not reflect what they want to say or argue.”
In sum, dear letter-writer, while I’ve encouraged you to use “they,” if you wish to persist with “she,” tell your journal’s editor that your pronoun choice is both intentional and political, and then justify your decision. Editors — myself, and my perspective in this column, included — are making suggestions that we believe will improve your text, but the ultimate authority over a piece being published rests with its author. Consider your editor’s advice, but then make the choice that best suits your voice and your argument.