The lack of a neutral pronoun in English is a persistent thorn in the side of academic writing—especially given that, with the growing demands for gender equality, the old-fashioned use of the masculine form for generic descriptions is increasingly frowned upon.
As a translator and editor, I frequently witness what a serious headache this problem is for my academic clients. It would be good if we could do what Swedish has done, which is adopt a new word for the purpose (hen—which is between hon [she] and han [he]). But as far as I know, there is nothing like that on the horizon (perhaps se—pron. /si/—a blend of she and he?).
So we are forced to improvise.
I have one academic client who, in pointed departure from the traditional, old-fashioned practice, always uses the feminine gender in generic descriptions. However, although the intention behind this is laudable, the result often seems forced, and in some cases (because it is so uncommon) misleadingly suggestive that a certain phenomenon is limited to women—e.g.:
[…] when an attorney who is paid on an hourly basis advises her client not to accept a settlement offer that is in the client’s best interests, but not in her own; or when an attorney who is paid a contingent fee advises her client to accept a settlement offer when she stands to gain more from this although the client stands to gain more from rejecting it—such conduct is akin to unfaithfulness and deceit.
Acknowledging that there is a problem, the Chicago Manual of Style, for example, lists no fewer than nine workarounds to avoid the neutral pronoun problem:
- Omit the pronoun.
- Repeat the noun.
- Use a plural antecedent.
- Use an article instead of a pronoun.
- Use the neutral singular pronoun one.
- Use the relative pronoun who.
- Use the imperative mood.
- In moderation, use he or she.
- Revise the sentence.
When the list of workarounds for a problem approaches the number of special explanations needed to explain irregularities in the Ptolemaic (geocentric) model of the solar system, you know that something needs to change.
In the absence of a dedicated neutral pronoun, the use of they and their for the purpose, which is already become common in informal usage—is probably the best option available. As the University of Louisville points out:
The use of singular they is not a novel idea but one that is already being adopted by notable institutions. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) recommends, in addition to the balanced use of he and she, using the singular they/their form, noting that the “construction is becoming increasingly acceptable.”
Based on NCTE’s guidelines, The Writing Center Journal (WCJ) has also adopted the use of they as a singular pronoun in their submission guidelines. The University of Vermont is one of the first universities to adopt the gender-neutral pronoun, incorporating it into their campus information system.
Even CMOS grudgingly admits that, although “neither [they and their] is considered fully acceptable in formal writing […] they are steadily gaining ground.”
If the use of they and their to denote a generic singular seems odd to you, remember that there is an obvious and notable precedent. The word you used to be exclusively plural or formal singular (like vous in French), with thou serving for the singular second person. By Early Modern English, however (ca. 1700), thou and thee fell out of use, and you had replaced both of them. It is a fair bet, therefore, that we’re currently in the midst of similar shift with regard to they and their.
There is also a certain logic to it, too: if you’re describing a generic singular person who is representative of all, or many, people—then implicitly, you are talking about them.
It’s like the word everyone, or everybody—it is conjugated as singular, but represents a mass of people (everyone, in fact).
There are many worthy causes worth fighting for, but resisting the use of they as a generic singular pronoun on the ‘logical’ grounds that it is meant to be plural is not one of them. So sit back, relax, and let the warm, soothing waves of they and their lap around you, and relieve those academic aches and pains.
You know you want to.