He said, she said

Rebecca Gowers is updating her great-grandfather’s guide to plain English, and has been vexed by what to do about a certain terminology.

Simon Heffer, in Strictly English, declares that he will stick to what he calls “the old rule”, because to plaster his work with “he or she” would represent “tedious verbosity”, and to use “them” instead is “abominable”. He adds consolingly: “This implies no offence to my women readers.” But really, how consoled does he expect them to be when the options he dismisses are not the only ones available to him?

Kingsley Amis, in The King’s English, says that he gets around the difficulty by falling back on plurals or passives, or if necessary by recasting entire sentences – because he is a coward. Hurrah, except that he often forgot to be cowardly: the grammarian, the public figure, the writer of letters to the newspaper, “somebody”: all end up as “he”.

There is yet another approach, exemplified by Steven Poole in his book Unspeak, in which the author attempts to even things up with the occasional remark such as that the reader “may not care to hold her breath”. I don’t know about this, but find myself thinking that if it is wrong to neglect your cat, you do not greatly improve matters by occasionally remembering to neglect your dog instead.

The Guardian

Personally I don’t have any issue with either rephrasing the sentence to remove the need for a masculine / feminine pronoun, or just using the singular ‘they’.

To some ears the idea of the singular ‘they’ may seem odd but English is literately changing all the time. The more people use ‘they’, the more everyone will accept it as a natural part of the language.


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