When he or she won’t do

The Chambers Dictionary lexicographers have redefined ‘marriage’, making it gender neutral:

‘the ceremony, act or contract by which two people become married to each other’

It’s one of a thousand updates and new entries, and, says The Independent, the 13th edition of Chambers is the first dictionary to make this change. But I’m so not sure.

Oxford Dictionaries already defines marriage as ‘the legal or formally recognized union of a man and a woman (or, in some jurisdictions, two people of the same sex) as partners in a relationship’. Wade into Collins Dictionary and you’ll find ‘the state or relationship of living together in a legal partnership’ and ‘the legal union or contract made by two people to live together’.

Even the Urban Dictionary – more of a quirky, cultural slang dictionary – may have got there first. It defines marriage as ‘A (legal) pact between two people (usually attracted to each other) to stay together forever in a working, two-way relationship.’ And in true Urban Dictionary-style, it includes less savoury descriptions as well.

But let’s forget about who got there first. The change signals a leap forward, as does the much-underused singular they.

When you write about someone whose gender you don’t know or doesn’t matter, you don’t need a gendered pronoun – he or she, for example. Using a generic masculine pronoun – writing he, him or his as if it were inclusive of she, her or hers – really just reinforces that the words in the first group exclude those in the second, especially when there are alternatives. It treats women as an afterthought, if a thought at all. It’s like saying ‘may the best man win’ to a group of men and women. You’d think twice, wouldn’t you?

One option is to rewrite to avoid using pronouns. So a sentence like ‘Only one candidate said he had already resigned’ becomes ‘Only one candidate had already resigned’, which is shorter if a little less informative.

Another is to make the word the pronoun refers to plural, and then use plural they. In other words, ‘So that each student can be assessed on the same basis he is asked the same questions’ becomes ‘So that students can be assessed on the same basis they are asked the same questions.’

And another is to learn to love singular they, and its mates: their and them. Taking the same examples again, ‘Only one candidate said they had already resigned’ and ‘So that each student can be assessed on the same basis they are asked the same questions’ both sound fine to me.

Prescriptivists hold the view that they can only ever be plural, even dismissing good writers who’ve used it. And they often believe that he (and his associates) is gender neutral so there’s no need for they, ignoring that this is plain wrong:

Is it your brother or your sister who can hold his breath for four minutes? (Source: Geoffrey Pullham)

But singular they and their and them aren’t new:

[quote align=”” name=”William Thackeray”]No one prevents you, do they?[/quote]

[quote align=”” name=”Oscar Wilde”]Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.[/quote]

[quote align=”” name=”Lawrence Durrell”]You do not have to understand someone in order to love them.[/quote]

They’ve been around for hundreds of years. Geoffrey Chaucer used singular they in The Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the 14th century.

Think about when you speak. Suppose you’re talking about a someone whose gender you don’t know, would you say ‘You start a conversation with a stranger. He says this is his stop. You see him in the next carriage’? Or would you say:

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Brita has got this right.

Go ahead, avoid singular they if it makes you flinch. But keep in mind that you is both singular and plural, so what’s your problem with they?

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