Columns » Words

He did, she did



"This question may be due to the difference in generations. My 31-year-old friend Cheree says she learned in college that 'she' is now the standard generic pronoun to use. I, age 61, have never heard that and would use the male pronoun as a default. She also says that style guides now say avoid using 'he' as a generic reference and rewrite the sentence to leave out pronouns (that's a little cumbersome!). Can you clarify this? — Anne"

Clarification is my middle name, or would be if my mother hadn't decided at the last moment that she preferred "Tyrone" instead. First off, I haven't heard of professors teaching that she should be used in place of he as a singular pronoun that fits everybody, and I can't see why they would. Suggesting that everyone is or should be female is no better than suggesting that everyone is or should be male, as the old rule does. Success With Words says that "Teaching children to use he in this way [when gender is unknown or unspecified] creates the impression that boys are the norm of humanity and girls are a secondary category or an exception." I try to avoid choosing either he or she in cases like this. There are various ways, some of them clumsy but not so clumsy as cramming everybody into one gender. You can write "he or she," although this can grow tiresome rather quickly. You can use plural rather than singular forms to generalize ­— "people" instead of "he" or "she" — so that you can also use a non-gendered plural pronoun like "them" or "they." And while it's true that rewriting can be cumbersome, some things are worth cumbering over.

On review, this is perhaps not as much clarification as Anne hoped for. But then, one doesn't always get what one hopes for, does one?


"Thurston's epic fail creates a vacuum.'' This use of a verb in place of a perfectly good noun sort of crept up on me, but a colleague says he frequently sees fail where failure belongs. Now I've seen reveal for revelation: "The reveal shocked the Cabinet." The reason for this anomaly? I don't know. Are people just becoming too lazy to use a correct but slightly longer word? Are we witnessing the disappear of concern for the language? 

Add a comment