A word, please: As literate as Shakespeare

Recently, a Minnesota Public Radio talk show listener called to suggest to language experts Ben Zimmer and Grant Barrett a clever solution to a very perplexing and pervasive language problem.

The problem crops up when we need to talk about a hypothetical or unknown person whose sex we don’t know. Consider the sentence, “Every employee should be sure he or she parks his or her car in the garage before reporting to his or her designated workstation and checking in with his or her supervisor.”

That’s just awful, right?

So what are the alternatives? Well, you could find ways to recast the sentence. That’s what I often do. But sometimes, for whatever reason, your sentence just can’t be recast.


Another option is to pick whichever sex your hypothetical person is most likely to be and use that throughout. “Every employee should be sure he parks his car in the garage before reporting to his designated workstation and checking in with his supervisor.”

That reads better, but probably not to the workers who happen to be women.

The feminine pronoun seems to be more popular these days, as if male readers are expected to understand that women, who got short shrift in the past, now get precedence as a courtesy or as compensation. But still, it’s imprecise and it discounts male readers.

In casual speech many of us, whether we realize it or not, fill the void with third-person plural pronouns: “they,” “their” and “them.” “Every employee should be sure they park their car....”


This nicely sidesteps the need to mention the gender of the employee, but it creates another problem: The employee it refers to, in this sentence at least, is singular. But “they” and “their” are plural.

Logically, it’s the equivalent of saying, “Tony thought they left their keys at their office and but found them in their pocket.” That’s why so many people object to using a plural like “they” to get around the question of the unknown person’s gender.

So the caller to the radio show had a solution: Why not create a gender-neutral singular pronoun for English?

Great idea, right? Now all we have to do is get people to use it. Aye, there’s the rub.

“Actually, this is something people have noted as missing in English, as opposed to other languages that have a gender-neutral, third-person-singular pronoun,” Zimmer told the caller. “People have tried to fill that gap over the years.”

In fact, Zimmer noted, there have been hundreds of attempts since the mid-19th century, some quite well publicized, to inject a new pronoun into the language. Thon, hu, hes, nie, en, lie, himer, hse, ve and hiser are just a few.

“Not a single one has caught on,” Zimmer said.

Language doesn’t work that way. Words, idioms and grammar conventions evolve organically, and that’s how a singular neuter English pronoun is evolving today. It’s “they,” and its partner forms “their” and “them.”


“The only thing that’s had any success is using the plural pronoun ‘they’ as a singular pronoun,” Zimmer said. “That is the most common and most acceptable, way even though it might rankle some people.”

Some think this is an erosion, or dumbing down, of the language. But many dictionaries now allow it.

Where do those crazy dictionary-makers get the nerve? By citing the examples from William Shakespeare and Jane Austen, both of whom used “they” as singular.

Until “they” as a singular becomes more accepted, I’ll avoid it. But, if you use it, I won’t think you any less literate than Shakespeare and Austen.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at