Wednesday, April 9, 2014

THE GIDDY GRAMMARIAN: “The Ubiquitous They”

by Lisbeth Eng

I’d like to devote my inaugural column to one of my pet peeves about the mod­ern English language – what I call “the ubiquitous they.” In the admirable quest for gender neutrality, “they” has irrevocably crept into our language.

How many times have you heard the words “they,” “their,” or “them” used when the speaker or writer is obviously referring to a singular subject? “When interviewing a pro­spective literary agent, make sure they understand your genre and style of writ­ing.” You are meeting with one agent so wouldn’t “he or she” be more precise, though perhaps more awkward?

I believe this problem became more acute as our society progressed from viewing tradition roles as belonging to one gender or the other. Some of us are old enough to remember when policemen, firemen and mailmen were commonplace terms, before they evolved into gender-neutral police officers, firefighters and mail carriers. It often seems unavoidable, so the use of “they” and its related pronouns – I admit to using them on occasion myself – has become almost universally acceptable, especially in spoken English.

If you call me at work and get my voicemail you will hear, ”If you wish to speak with someone else, please dial their extension, or dial zero for the operator.” Though I cringed as I recorded this greeting, I set aside my grammatical bias, recognizing that “please dial his or her extension” was too awkward, and besides, how many people would even notice? However, there are ways to remain both grammatically and politically correct. Sometimes you can merely switch from singular to plural.

Using my previous example, one can say, “When interviewing prospective literary agents, make sure they understand your genre and style of writing.” Or better yet: “…make sure to discuss your genre and style of writing.” Another fix, though nearly impossible to use in fiction writing, is to alternate between “he” and “she” from one example to the next. I have seen this method applied in non-fiction and in business manuals. If the written material involves an illustra­tive stockbroker, for example, the first broker referenced could be female, while the next, male. A generation ago, they would all have been male. We still use words such as “mankind” and “brotherhood” to refer to mixed gender groups. The old saw, “A dog is a man’s best friend,” is not meant to exclude female pet owners.

In fic­tion writing, however, euphony and style often grapple with grammar. I encountered the “his/her/their” dilemma while writing my World War II romance, In the Arms of the Enemy. I had written this sentence: “She couldn’t imagine a life with Günter; neither of them would ever betray their comrades or their country.” Of course, this was grammatically incorrect, but the phrase, “…neither of them would ever betray his or her comrades or his or her country” was appallingly clumsy.  Thankfully, another writer came to my rescue by proposing: “…neither of them would ever betray comrades or country.” Not only is it grammatically correct, but it also flows more smoothly.

This also reinforced an important lesson for me as a writer: sometimes less is more. So, with a little thought and creativity, use of the ubiquitous “they” may be avoided, or at least reduced, much to the relief of the grammatical gods and goddesses.♥

Lisbeth Eng works as a Compliance Officer in the financial industry by day and writes historical romance by night. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English, and speaks a smattering of German, Italian and French. Please visit her at

1 comment:

  1. Oh, Lis, I totally agree with you! When I had more time---ages ago!---I used to write a column for Keynotes, laying out grammar errors I had found in newspapers, TV or ads. I NEVER ran out of material!