Originally Posted by HarryT
These things really can't be arbitrated; if the language has a genuine need for a gender-neutral 3rd person pronoun, it will gain one. Some might say that it already has, in the extension of the usage of the pronoun "they".
Here's a passage from Lecture 23 of The Teaching Company
's course, Analysis and Critique: How to Engage and Write about Anything
. Professor Dorsey Armstrong of Purdue University is the speaker. I transcribed her remarks directly from the audio, so any errors in grammar or punctuation are mine alone.
The second common error I want to address also relates to pronouns, and it's something called "subject-pronoun agreement". To illustrate this issue, let's examine another two sentences. Here's the first one:
"If a person has a complaint, he or she should contact the Human resources department."
And here's sentence two:
"If a person has a complaint, they should contact the Human resources department."
Okay; sentence two sounds simpler and it's more economical, but in fact that's the sentence that is incorrect.
The reason is that person is singular but they is plural. In other words, they don't agree. That sentence could be easily corrected by simply turning "person" into "people". If people complain, they should contact the Human resources department. "People" and "they" are both plural and thus they agree
By using a sentence like, "If a person has a complaint, they should contact the Human resources department," not only do you manage to have your pronouns agree (person, he, and she are all singular), but you also avoid the pitfall of using what we call 'gender-exclusive' language. And that's the third common error of which you should be aware. Now when I was in school, I was taught that when you're trying to get your pronouns to agree it was alright to use "he" to stand in for the universal subject; thus the sentence, "If a person has a complaint, he should contact the Human resources department," would be correct as it's understood that here in this sentence "he" is referring to all people, not just men. The masculine here was working in the same way that "mankind" is understood to refer to all humanity. Now, as a female myself, this didn't seem quite fair to me when I learned it as a high-school student, and by the time I got to college the grammar police, whoever they are, seemed to agree. And thus it was suggested that subject-pronoun agreement be achieved by composing sentences like, "If a person has a complaint, he or she should contact the Human resources department." This solution also seems somewhat unsatisfactory, as did the more streamline, "If a person has a complaint, (s)he should contact the Human resources department." I was obviously not the only person who found this solution somewhat awkward and unyielding, and I've been told by some of my recent college students that their high-school teachers have instructed them to use the plural pronoun "they" even if it's paired with a singular subject like "person". The idea here would be to try not to offend anyone; and it works, except for the fact that it really offends anyone who cares about proper grammar.
(1) Several posters have pointed out that there is historical precedent for using "they" in a singular sense. I don’t dispute that, but I would say that in my experience it seems foreign to pre-feminist 20th century
(2) As moderators, we encounter the gender dilemma far more often than most non-moderators. When we're in the Secret Moderator Chamber (located in an undisclosed location deep within the bowels of the Earth) discussing RooftopSinger's report of ShoelaceBandit's rude behavior, I frequently find myself forced to refer to ShoelaceBandit as either "this member" or "they". Both seem cumbersome. I hate myself every time I use the singular "they", but I hate myself even more for those occasions when I've fallen back on the universal "he". Quite frankly, I wish all members would put a check-mark in the gender block in the User CP. It would make things easier for me, but times being what they are I can understand the reluctance of many people to do so.