English speakers are left with a conundrum when it comes to talking about a third person in a way that does not specify their gender. As English lacks a gender-neutral, third-person singular pronoun, is it better to use “he” (the masculine singular) or “they” (the gender-neutral plural)? (For the sake of simplicity we will leave out the clunky and infrequently used “he/she”.)

The Argument for He

Some people argue that using “he” as a gender-neutral pronoun is more appropriate, as it is shorter and has been more commonly used in English over the last two centuries. During the late 19th century many grammar guides stated that “he” was the only acceptable form to use as a gender-neutral pronoun. However, this argument has been criticized as not being inclusive and re-inforcing a male-centric society since the use of “he” was based on the idea that males are the dominant sex. 

The Argument for They

The use of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun in English has a long history, dating back to the 14th century. The pronoun “they” was originally used as a plural pronoun, but over time, it has also been used to refer to a single person whose gender is not known or specified.

In the past, the use of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun was primarily found in literature and informal speech. For example, in Shakespeare’s plays, characters often use “they” to refer to a single person of unspecified gender. Similarly, in everyday speech, people often use “they” when referring to a person whose gender they don’t know or don’t want to specify.

The Shift from He to They

In recent years, the use of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun has become more mainstream as part of a wider effort at using more inclusive language. As a result, many organizations, media outlets, and individuals have started using “they” as a default pronoun for people whose gender is not specified.

Some style guides, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, and some news organizations, like The New York Times, have adopted the use of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun. Additionally, many universities, businesses, and other organizations have policies in place that encourage the use of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun.

There are still some people who argue against the use of “they” as a singular pronoun, claiming that it is not grammatically correct. However, many experts argue that the use of “they” as a singular pronoun is not only grammatically correct but also necessary in order to create a more inclusive society.