A polemic on pronouns


English speakers used to distinguish between thou, a word used to address a single person, and you, a word used to address more than one person. Just as kings used a royal, plural we when referring to one person, English speakers came to use a flattering you when addressing a single person. The Quakers retained thou to avoid elevating anyone with you. To non-Quakers, this standing on principle sounded antiquated and pedantic.

Today we face a similar problem that mixes plurality and sociology: we are told that the singular, third person pronoun is he. We are told that she implies a gender; while to say he could mean either male or genderless. This is confusing, so in speech we use a singular they. (“Someone came up to me and they said…”) We are told that, in writing, it is incorrect to use the singular they because they “should be” plural. Instead we are told to use he, which “should be” (or, preposterously, “is”) genderless.

He and she are gendered now and have always been gendered. Maybe it’s possible to hear he and think “any old human, male or female”, but I’m afriad that it’s easier to hear “any old human”, in the sense that men are genderless humans and women –the she– are something different. To say that they is grammatically incorrect, or that they is unpoetical, ignores that the use of they as singular has a long history. Even Shakespeare wrote: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend” (Comedy of Errors).

I say, let us call a single person they, keeping he for men and she for women. Let us do in our writing as we do in our speech. Even if this were bad for grammar –which I think is just made-up pedantry– it is good for women, and I would rather grammar suffer, than women.