He or She, etc.
He, She, and Changing Times
By Evan Jenkins
Dale Brayden, a software engineer in Vancouver, Wash., sent a thoughtful message after reading “There’s No ‘They’ There” (see "Singular noun, plural pronoun")The item criticized the common but deplorable use of plural pronouns for singular nouns, in this case “they” for “bond firm.” The solution use “it,” not “they” was obvious, but it ducked a tougher question.
“Years ago,” Mr. Brayden e-mailed, “I would have written, for example, ‘no person should feel any pressure simply because he was called by the City Budget Director.’ ” But “he,” the default pronoun for generations of us, is inarguably sexist.
Granting that, Mr. Brayden had no sympathy for the faddish coinage “s/he,” which happily has not seemed to catch on. And simply alternating “she” with “he,” willy-nilly and regardless of context, can be conspicuous and distracting. The gender-neutral “one,” as in “One should not feel ... because one was called ...” has “a tendency to proliferate,” Mr. Brayden observed, and “sounds awfully upper-crusty and stilted.” It certainly does.
What to do? In contexts that are clearly male or clearly female, the appropriate pronoun is, uh, appropriate, and we needn’t strain to avoid it. Elsewhere, a broad answer is to rework the sentence; a narrow example of reworking is to use plurals “people should not feel pressure ... because they were called...” Mr. Brayden said he saw “he or she” often and found it “awkward and inelegant,” but it’s a legitimate last resort. Maybe, if we can avoid drumbeat repetition, it will come to seem as comfortable as “he.”
Reporting on a poll, this passage avoided the “he or she” problem at a price: “...Mr. Giuliani and Mrs. Clinton (neither has officially announced candidacy) are in a statistical dead heat.” The absence of pronouns before “candidacy” was noticeably awkward. Maybe “a candidacy” would have seemed more natural. Or duck the issue with “neither has officially decided to run.” Or maybe even “neither has officially announced his or her candidacy.” Unlike the generic “he or she” situations that crop up so frequently, this was a case of a real him and a real her.