He vs. She vs. They

We have an outdated approach to pronouns.

Technically speaking, if we are referring to a generic person, we should refer to this person as “he or she”. This is to keep the person as a universal entity, not shrouded by one specific gender1. However, as one of my main philosophies about communication (and writing in particular) is “keep it brief”, I find the use of “he or she” to be completely absurd. It’s a nuisance when I write, and I always hated myself for doing it, even though it was technically correct.

Fast forward to now, and I don’t care anymore. I’ve found the pronoun I’m going to use going forward, and it’s “they”. Anytime I see someone refer to people as “guys”, or to a person as “he”, I simply find it strange and exclusive.

I first came across this idea from Sean Carroll, and I have to say, it reflects my sentiments exactly. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the word “they”, and it captures precisely what I want to convey: a generic person, with no gender attached. By all means, use whatever mental model you’ve built up in your head. I don’t want to impose either one, nor do I want to “keep score” to make sure I’ve balanced my use of male and female pronouns. The truth is, it’s not important enough for me to try and keep count, and so “they” is the winner.

The word is more universal and a fewer number of words in total. In my mind, that’s a win-win situation for everyone.

  1. Of course, I’m talking about males. We seem to be trying to establish ourselves everywhere, to the expense of our opposite gender. It actually bothers me quite a bit when I read someone who I admire and who has great ideas, yet keeps on using the male pronoun, as if it’s the only one available in existence. Conversely, I’ve also become annoyed with the people who go to the other end of the extreme and only use female pronouns. Come on people, we can find a middle ground. 

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