The Tyranny of "He or She"

by Jessie Hale

Published at 2013-06-14

The Chicago Manual of Style and I disagree on something.


This almost never happens. I look at Chicago the way some people look at the Bible: as a source of comfort, guidance, and authority. But section 5.227 of Chicago says this: “The only gender-neutral pronoun in English is it, which doesn’t refer to humans.”


Oh, Chicago, Chicago, why hast thou forsaken me?


In fact, gender-neutral pronouns for humans have existed for many years now, and awareness of them is increasing. And everyone – especially editors – needs to start learning how to use them.


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As Chicago acknowledges, the singular “they” is becoming more and more common as a replacement for “he or she.” Although they somewhat grudgingly allow this, they consider it “ungrammatical” in formal writing. Similarly, the Canadian Press Stylebook allows the singular “they” but strongly discourages it. But I believe the much-maligned pronoun is an elegant solution to many a writing problem. “Every student should have his or her ID with him or her if he or she wishes to use the school gymnasium” becomes “Every student should have their ID with them if they wish to use the school gymnasium,” losing awkwardness without losing sense.


A More Inclusive Option


More importantly, as neither Chicago nor CP acknowledges, “he or she” is exclusive to those individuals who identify with one of the two. There are many people who don’t, and “he or she” is a subtle yet pervasive way to deny their existence. Many individuals who don’t identify with either side of the gender binary prefer to be referred to as “they” rather than “him” or “her.” There are other non-gender-specific pronouns as well: “ze” (probably the most common after “they”), “ey,” “ne,” and more. (Check out this very valuable resource on gender-neutral pronoun options and how to conjugate them.)


Given the vast diversity of gender expression that can be seen simply walking down certain Toronto streets, why are we still suffering under the tyranny of “he or she”?


I’ve written before about how spelling and grammar are powerful. Language defines our experience, and evolves as experience does. I believe in writing and speaking correctly – I am an editor, after all – but I also believe that “the rules” can change, and if they’re not making room for compassion and inclusivity, they should change.


Yes, Chicago, there are gender-neutral pronouns in English for humans. Why haven't you been paying attention?


Further Reading:


The Need for a Gender-Neutral Pronoun


Sweden's New Gender-Neutral Pronoun: Hen


Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ