44 thoughts on “He Said, He said, He said, He Said, He Said, He Said, She Said

  1. Wow, great news. That’s real progress.

    I’m curious what people think the right way to deal with the pronoun issue is. Depending on the paper, I take one of two approaches. First, I mix things up, roughly fifty-fifty, am try to be careful that positive/negative examples aren’t skewed toward one gender or the other. (E.g. “It would be foolish for someone to insist that her . . .”)

    Or, if the paper is more dialectical, I’ll use one gender for one point-of-view and the other gender for the other. E.g. “the egalitarian believes that she can justify . . .”

    For reasons of style, I do not ever use “they” in the singular. I have heard this recommended but I do not support it.

  2. Yes, I know that some people use it that way, but I don’t, because I believe that it is ungrammatical.

    So I’m wondering how other people handle things.

  3. Is there anyone who would like to be helpful, and not snarky or sarcastic, to a nice person who is trying to make a difference?

  4. Fair enough, HappyPhilosopher. For my part, I’m sympathetic to those who suggest that the use of the plural ‘they’ is no longer ungrammatical in such cases. I take it you have reservations about that change?

  5. Yes. I’ve made a decision about that. I believe that the plural ‘they’ is ungrammatical. I believe that Rachel and Matt are wrong. I believe that the Chicago Manual of Style (e.g.) is right.

    So, given that belief–which of course might be mistaken–I want to do the best I can to ensure that I use inclusive and gender-neutral language. That’s what I’m asking for advice on.

    An aside: My thought process seems like a perfectly reasonable one, and so I don’t get why these people are consistently snarky and rude about things. You understand, I hope, that I am trying harder than 90% of philosophers to be attentive to these issues. If you’re going to be mean to me, what chance do you think we have to get the rest of them to come around?

  6. I’ve made a decision about that. I believe that the plural ‘they’ is ungrammatical. I believe that Rachel and Matt are wrong. I believe that the Chicago Manual of Style (e.g.) is right

    I’m not being “snarky or rude”. I believe that prescriptivism about grammar is both false and pernicious (and have the backing of most linguists here.) The Language Log link is meant to be informative. You should really read it. If, for example, Shakespeare and other paradigms of usage can regularly use a singular “they” (as they do) then I’ll not at all worry that the Chicago Manual of Style disagrees. Why should I credit it, after all? My point is that many, many highly competent users of the English language have thought and do think that “they” may be used as a singular pronoun, and there is rarely, if ever, any confusion caused by doing so, and that this is all there is to questions of “grammaticality”. Anything beyond that is ideology. Saying so is just pointing out the truth, and not being mean.

  7. My guess regarding why people are snarky and rude is two-fold. First, I think many such individuals take themselves to be very informed about such matters (which they probably are), and have grown weary of repeating themselves to an unreceptive audience. This strikes me as an understandable attitude, if a mistaken one. Part of the role of the expert is to inform those with less expertise (whether or not those with less expertise are receptive). Second, being snarky and rude has been normalized in the profession over the years (see, e.g., prominent individuals like Brian Leiter). As an unfortunate result, it has become common practice.

    FWIW, I’m speaking purely speculatively here.

  8. The problem P, is that these people are not very informed about these matters. They are not, at least, informed relative to me. Of that I can assure you.

  9. Has someone given inaccurate information in this thread? Or does that comment mean that people just aren’t as much of an expert as you? (But is that just in terms of being an expert on grammar?)

  10. Hi HappyPhilosophy — If I may, allow me to ask a (perhaps) obvious question: Who is not very informed? And in what ways (*about what*) are they not very informed? I’m not intending to be antagonistic. Rather, I figure the clearer we can get on such matters, the better our chances are.

  11. These messages boards are a waste of time. What I would like to see is for people–especially white men–to treat me with a little bit of respect, without sarcasm or snark–when I hold a slightly different view on a debatable matter.

  12. For what it’s worth, HappyPhilosopher, that people should treat you with respect strikes me as a reasonable request.

  13. these people are not very informed about these matters. They are not, at least, informed relative to me.

    You’re more informed than the linguists on Language Log? Somehow I doubt that, but I hope you don’t expect me to take your word on it. You’ve offered no evidence at all. I also see no evidence that you’ve been mistreated. (People disagreeing with you isn’t mistreatment. You’ve certainly received nothing worse than you’ve typically given on this blog or others, and in fact generally better.)

  14. That sucks if you’re feeling unfairly disrespected; god knows many of us get more than our fair share of that. I think there may be something going on with some of your comments (on this thread and on others) coming across as more aggressive and dismissive than you intend them to be. But honestly, if you’re frustrated to the point that you feel the need to say “these message board are a waste of time,” then it’s probably not worth your time to get into a discussion with me about that (I mean that sincerely–sometimes it’s better to just do something else than remain in a situation that feels toxic). I may be wrong, but I would read your last comment as a sign that it’s probably in your best interest to take a break from the internet for some hours / the night.

    And Matt, you can let up on the aggression yourself here. Clearly HP and you are not going to have a productive conversation about this right now.

  15. I am not an uncompromising opponent of singular ‘they’, by any means (and in general, I do not think it a good idea to treat grammar manuals as though they were penal codes, rather than collections of guidelines), but there is one important point that I think is not made frequently enough. The usage in question is certainly, as any good lexicographer will tell you, *attested* in Shakespeare, Johnson, Austen, Woolf, and a great many other writers of the first calibre; many of them availed themselves of it reasonably often. But, to the best of my knowledge, none used it *unremittingly* — in sentence after sentence in rapid succession. A page with twenty-five instances of singular ‘they’ sounds quite jarring to an ear trained on the classics of high English prose, in a way that a page with one or two instances does not. This militates against the use of this pronoun as the *sole* solution to some of the vexed questions relating to grammatical gender in English.

  16. I hear you on the point that a million “they”s can sound terrible. But then again, the same thing applies to “I”, “you”, and “one”, and we can find ways to manage with those words. So I’d think we can push ourselves to be more judicious and elegant with our “they”s.

    At the end of the day, I find that though many people still feel annoyed when they see a singular they, almost no one is confused by it. And that tells me that it functions just fine in the singular.

    But I’ve also seen good uses of people switching between she and he. So I’m all for pluralism on this matter.

  17. That’s true, but is that a legitimate worry? The idea is to use ‘they’ in general cases instead of either ‘she’ or ‘he.’ Examples can still be gendered (hopefully authors are mindful of which genders they use for which examples) and thus use gendered pronouns.

  18. Stacy- does it really seem to you that I’m being “aggressive”? I’ll admit that I don’t think so at all. (Certainly, not any more than is common on this blog.) I really don’t see anything that I have said to be any more aggressive than, say, your 11 above.

  19. When someone says they feel disrespected and think things are getting unproductive, that is not the time to push them on the original point as you did in comment #15.

    And you’re right about my #11, but that was before HP expressed frustration. Because based on HP’s previous comments on various posts, I took my #11 to match their own baseline aggression levels. (I now suspect there is a miscommunication of tone and implications going on.)

    Also, your comment at #4 is more aggressive than my #11. I’m not saying I’m never aggressive; I think it’s perfectly appropriate at times. At times. It’s about judging the context. When someone says they feel disrespected, not responding to that and continuing with the original line of argument is more aggressive in that moment than it would have been pre-frustration-comment.

  20. To reframe HP’s question slightly, because it’s a reasonable question people here might be able to shed light on and most of this thread has focused on side issues:

    Suppose you’re writing for a publication or editor known to detest singular “they”. They’re not opposed to inclusive language, exactly, but neither is it a high priority for them. In any case they’re convinced that, whatever the solution to that problem is, it’s not “they”. Do you have any advice on pronoun use in this case other than what HP has already said back in post 1?

  21. I can think of the following options, listed in order of my own preference (based on political and stylistic considerations, of course):

    –Use “she” as default for persons where gender is unspecified.
    –Alternate between “she” and “he” in a way similar to what HappyPhilosopher described in #1.
    –Use “”she or he”
    –Use “one” or “you” or find ways to avoid pronouns
    –Use “she” and “he” randomly with no rhyme or reason, in the hopes that, if the editor doesn’t appreciate you sticking it to the binary, they might let you go back to using “they”
    –Use “he” as default
    –Use “s/he”

  22. The Chicago Manual of Style does not say that singular ‘they’ is ungrammatical. It is a style manual, and its compilers are not qualified to say what is grammatical. In #24 here, Stacey Goguen notes in parentheses that her suggestions are based on her style preferences and political views, and that is more or less what the Chicago Manual is going on as well. (Uh, they probably don’t even know Stacey’s political views, but you know what I mean.)
    I do use singular ‘they’ myself, but I use it rather sparingly in prose I want to publish, just because it tends to give a less formal feel. I think this is complicated because some uses, like when ‘they’ serves as a bound variable, it is consistent with “high register” writing, while in other uses, as with singular demonstrative reference to a person of unknown gender, it has an informal sound, or worse.

    Fine everywhere: Everyone brought their camera on the trip.

    Sketchier: (Pointing at the circus clown) They are going to drive that tiny car!

    (This is why it would still be nice to have a standard, separate unmarked singular third person pronoun, but I’m afraid we’re going to have to make do with ‘they’.)

    I think possibly what’s responsible for the prickly feelings is that Happy Philosopher is thinking of claims about grammar as personal matters, perhaps like aesthetic judgments, while many of the commenters (including me) think they are matters of empirical fact. This explains why responders to HP felt the “I have made up my mind and this is where I stand” attitude was not really appropriate, while HP felt affronted by the challenge to, uh, their equal claim to authority (that’s a slightly sketchy one!).

    My answer to Jeff H. is: To the ramparts! Fight for liberty! Concede nothing to the masters! See Punctuation and Human Freedom, written by one Language Log writer and starring (sort of) another (both Geoffs, Pullum and Nunberg, have spoken at recent APA meetings, by the way).

  23. Also, I think we may have lost track of the main upshot of Eric S’s study. The reason that ‘he’ occurs so much more often than ‘she’ in contemporary philosophy abstracts is not that writers use examples involving men, or attempt to use ‘he’ as unmarked for gender. The reason is that the philosophers important enough in the abstracted article to be mentioned in the abstract are overwhelmingly men. (It’s worse than 6:1, in fact, as Eric makes clear in the light analysis he gives.)
    Of course, we drag our heavy past along today, and the huge gender imbalance of philosophy’s history probably explains a bunch of the pronoun imbalance in our abstract anaphor. Nevertheless it’s worrisome. I don’t use third person pronouns in my own abstracts, but on the underlying issue my work does fit the pattern Eric found: I’m sure that the philosophers who get prominent mention in my papers are about 10:1 men:women. And again, it’s due at least partly to the fact that metaethics has been *done* much more by men than by women; still, what Eric’s discovery highlights is that this is apt to be a kind of vicious cycle.

  24. From my book on the Many-Worlds theory of quantum mechanics:

    “where possible I have avoided gender-specific pronouns; where they are unavoidable (as is often the case, in particular, in discussions of rational agents in decision theory) I have chosen the gender of each agent, experimenter, or observer via a quantum-mechanically random process. My apologies to readers unfortunate enough to be in a branch [of the constantly branching larger quantum reality] where this has led to an outcome not to their liking.”

    As a point of interest, the “quantum-mechanically random process” did in the end get tweaked a few times, just because genuinely random sequences often don’t “look” random, and end up with five or six consecutive “hes” or “shes”.

  25. I’m a little surprised nobody has mentioned (what I think are) two strong political grounds for using “they” as a singular pronoun. Even just using “she” or “he or she”:

    (a) excludes people who do not identify themselves in terms of the gender binary; and
    (b) implies–questionably, at best–that agents are essentially gendered: a neutral or abstract agent, though generally not assigned an ethnicity or nationality or height or whatever, must for some reason nevertheless be assigned a gender.

    And note that once you recognize that rejecting the gender binary is even conceptually possible, you pretty much need the singular “they.” Otherwise you would be stuck with absurdities like: “Everyone’s self-conception ought to be at least presumptively respected, regardless of whether he or she identifies as male, female, both, or neither.”

    I’m also a little surprised that nobody has linked to my favorite defense of the singular “they” yet:


  26. BB is entirely correct. This is what was behind my cryptic “‘They’ has many benefits and few to no drawbacks.” I use ‘they’ for political reasons of inclusion. And yet I still sometimes use gendered examples (that’s totally fine!).

  27. The singular “they” is fine, but often inelegant for reasons noted. What about the second person singular pronoun, “you”? We use “you” all the time to refer to “a person” instead of to the addressee of our discourse.

  28. I too have fallen prey to the pernicious ideology that singular “they” often sounds ungrammatical, so I try (and sometimes fail) to avoid it. Good reasons doubtless exist to use “they”, but since I don’t like it (especially with singulars like “one” or “someone”) I prefer to mix things up among “he”, “she”, “she and he”, or “he and she”. I don’t assume words necessarily indicate more significant levels of distinction among kinds of things (or vice versa), and I haven’t felt the need to substitute “they” for any metaphysical reason. I take “she” or “he” to be fronts for a more complex reality, like many other generalizing terms. However, I’m open to arguments for the claim that “they” does a better job of communicating accurately and thus should be preferred, so if anyone has such an argument *they* should post it, ha ha! See, I still prefer the sound of “if anyone has one, she or he should post it” (or the alternatives using only “he” or “she” or even “you”).

    Regarding the original post, the reasons for the observed change in numbers were interesting. Given the history of the subject we can expect the pronoun ratio to remain tilted to one side, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing by itself. Schwitzgebel’s quick initial review suggests that gender-inclusive language is becoming or has become a norm, and people are interested in and engaging with the work of women philosophers. Pretty interesting to see a little evidence of that.

  29. Prof. Grams, do you dislike this sentence?

    To be sure, you knew no actual good of me — but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.
    (That’s Elizabeth Bennet addressing Mr. Darcy.)
    I believe Austen never used singular ‘they’ with ‘someone’ as antecedent. She uses it with ‘everybody’ (or technically, ‘every body’) all the time and that’s morphosyntactically singular (as in ‘everybody knows’, never, in Standard Written English, ‘everybody know’). E. B. White did use it with ‘someone’:

    But somebody taught you, didn’t they? (Charlotte’s Web, which I think may be the most perfectly written children’s book.)

    Here’s a bit of dialogue from Shakespeare:

    Arise; one knocks; good Romeo, hide thyself.

    Not I; unless the breath of heartsick groans,
    Mist-like, infold me from the search of eyes.


    Hark, how they knock! Who’s there?

    A particularly nice example. It’s demonstrative ‘they’, not anaphora, and the denotation is plainly one person. Do you not find these examples entirely natural? Is the E. B. White question awkward? We all have our stylistic preferences but I’ll be surprised if you find these lines awkward or unpleasant.

    Besides the problem with ‘he or she’ that BB and RM note (and which had not occurred to me before), it is often extremely awkward. A particular impossible problem arises when you want to add a tag question:

    *Someone knocked, didn’t he or she?


    (I have used a lot of html tags in this comment and I can’t preview it; I hope I didn’t mess anything up.)

  30. As someone who had long suffered the effects of having terrible scoliosis as a child, I’m slightly bothered by RM’s casual use of ‘drawback’ to refer to something negative.

  31. Hi Eleanor. I didn’t know that “drawback” had that etymology. I’m very sorry. I won’t use it anymore. Thank you for telling me.

    If you would, I’m trying to find a reference for its connection to ableism and specifically scoliosis. I’d really appreciate a link (I will continue to do my own searching) if you could give one. It’d be helpful in the future when I raise problems with its use, as you have with me.

  32. That sucks to have to put up with that, Eleanor. I hate it when I realize how seriously ****ed up our linguistic heritage can be.

    I also think I’m gonna borrow the structure of Rachel’s comment at #35 the next time it’s brought to my attention that I’m using sketchy language. I’ve tried to articulate similar sentiments before, but I’ve never gotten it that concise.

  33. #34 is either not sincere or does not know the etymology of the word ‘drawback.’ Look it up at OED or etymonline[dot]com. It has nothing to do with scoliosis.

  34. I did quite a lot of checking myself, and I can’t find any connection between “drawback” and scoliosis. I’ve also found a handful of instances of feminist disabilities studies/advocates using “drawback” in the same sense that I did. Now while neither of these are dispositive, and I want to trust the testimony of Eleanor, the probability that it’s trolling is going up, unfortunately :(

  35. Just to stress this point (not sure if anyone is actually contesting it though), an ableist history is not the only way that a word can do ableist damage. We might question whether there is in fact damage being done (in the case of trolling), but the possibility that someone is mistaken about the cause doesn’t lessen (for me at least) whether they deserve a default response of compassion when they say, “Hey, it hurts to hear X”.
    Whether or not they are right about why it hurts I think in most cases should be secondary to the issue that there is something presumably causing someone hurt.

  36. Sometimes people can be upset for stupid reasons. If I’m upset by seeing two homosexuals kissing, that’s a stupid reason and doesn’t merit compassion. If someone is upset because he thinks the word ‘drawback’ has something to do with scoliosis, that’s a stupid reason and doesn’t merit compassion.

  37. This is why I used the term “ableist damage.” That was meant to be shorthand for saying, “damage and hurt that stems largely from systems of oppression at work.” Of course I’m not making an argument about every single instance of a human being feeling hurt or emotionally bothered.

    I’m not sure why you would think I was going for such a ridiculously generalized argument, when there’s so many immediate counter-examples, such as the one you provide.

  38. Jamie, thanks for the examples, I like all of those. They don’t sound wrong to me, but even so I mentally stumble a bit on encountering that singular/plural shift. I’m not encountering these passages free from awareness of what I’m looking for, though! Perhaps it would be different if I was simply reading along in Charlotte’s Web (totally agreed on how awesomely written that book is!) and unwittingly came across the phrase. I’m not an artful writer by comparison, so when I lapse into use of singular ‘they’ I usually feel it sounds unpleasantly wrong. Maybe when I was a student I was taught to identify it as a “mistake” and since then am on the lookout for it. If there are other reasons not just to tolerate but prefer singular ‘they’, I would like to know.

  39. Comments 41 &42 above raise an interesting issue. I don’t really think of compassion as something to be doled out or not on the merits, and sometimes the very people for whom I feel a kind of compassion are those who suffer from errors or believe things someone might call stupid.

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