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I know there are different opinions on this issue. My question: Is using "he" for a general, gender-neutral third person still in common use for formal writing? By common use I mean, can I expect my paper not to be penalised because I use "he" as pronoun for "a student", etc.?

I think "he/she" is too clumsy and I am not comfortable with singular they.

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This question deals specifically with the acceptability of "he". Those questions deal with "they", "she", or gender neutral pronoun in general. –  Iti Jun 19 '11 at 9:52
    
Those questions treat about gender neutral pronouns, and especially the main one treats about both, so yours is more or less included. Note that it's a "possible" duplicate for now, meaning that if other don't vote, it will stay open. Democracy wins! :D –  Alenanno Jun 19 '11 at 10:13
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@Alenanno: I have read the answers to those other questions, and I couldn't find any answer about the acceptability of he/his in formal writing. So this question isn't a duplicate. If I missed it, please quote. –  Cerberus Jun 19 '11 at 12:20
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I now always use they without worrying. It's been in use for centuries, and it sounds perfectly acceptable to native speakers (British English). Anyone who objects is so formal as to be antediluvian, IMHO. –  user11900 Aug 12 '11 at 3:44

4 Answers 4

It's still considered acceptable. If you really want to cover your bases, include a definition at the front that reference to one gender imports all other genders, unless the context requires otherwise, and explain that you'll be using "he" for the sake of simplicity.

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+1 It is still de rigueur in traditional writing. The politically correct will always find something to unleash their prescriptive pedantry on; but any sane person knows conventional style and will not consider "he" sexist. // Publications from local government are hardly a reliable style guide. Even universities often send letters with grammar mistakes, probably composed by their marketing departments. –  Cerberus Jun 19 '11 at 21:56
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@Cerberus: I strongly disagree. It's a pretty outdated usage in most writing, except where it is important not to cause confusion about the use of "they". –  Marcin Jun 19 '11 at 21:59
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@Cerberus: I too will disagree with you here. Firstly, it’s definitely not still de rigueur in any context — awkward circumlocutions like he/she have been acceptable for decades, and more promisingly, prejudice against the venerable singular they in formal writing is on the wane. // On the other hand, more subjectively, here’s why I prefer not to use he as a gender-neutral pronoun: [cont’d in next comment] –  PLL Aug 12 '11 at 3:56
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As you say, everyone knows conventional style, and no-one should read generic he as intentional sexism. But there’s a fair bit of research on how things like this, even when completely conventionalised, contribute to shaping people’s perceptions and prejudices of gender. The asymmetry of gender in conventional grammar and style is one of the many things reinforcing sexism in society. Yes, it’s a small part, and in many cases would be impossible to change without brutally overhauling entire languages. But this example is fairly egregious, and has a decent alternative; so why not change? –  PLL Aug 12 '11 at 4:07
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@Cerberus: It is, of course, more complex than the example of la présidence -> women, la comitié -> men — I think you’re unfairly oversimplifying these arguments a bit there. Lena Boroditsky’s work is what I was mainly thinking of; LL has discussed it several times, eg here. She shows pretty convincingly that grammatical gender affects (not drastically, but quite significantly) the connotations we give to words: eg Spanish speakers are more apt to associate feminine-associated characteristics with bridges (la puente), –  PLL Aug 13 '11 at 18:01

Its correctness, as with any language usage, will depend on your audience. In England, in most formal writing, using "he" in this context would communicate that you were either unaware of contemporary good usage, or deliberately flouting it.

[Edit, prompted by the OP:] For example, from the Transport for London editorial style guide (a major municipal highways authority & public transport operator with a multi-billion pound (dollar/euro) turnover:

Avoid giving offence by using outdated or patronising terms and include references to gender only when it is essential. Using the plural can be helpful: customers; local people; employees

(my emphasis)

[Edit 2] Similarly, from the Training and Development Agency for Schools style guide:

they, he/she

Use they in preference to he/she: if the candidate passes the test, they should... If possible, try to avoid using gender specific pronouns, e.g. candidates who pass the test should…

(emphasis in the original)

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Can you cite any reputable source/guidelines saying that it's not recommended? –  Iti Jun 19 '11 at 14:40

Personally (and with the bias of a mid-western American English speaker), it sounds out-dated to use he or she in this case; the plural they avoids any gender bias. Alternatively, you also works as a replacement, however the tone may become too direct and commanding, which some may find disturbing.

Consider:

  • In order to exit the parking garage, the driver must have the ticket that he received upon entry. He must then insert the card into the slot, whereupon the amount due will be displayed.
  • In order to exit the parking garage, the driver must have the ticket that they received upon entry. They must then insert the card into the slot, whereupon the amount due will be displayed.
  • In order to exit the parking garage, you must have the ticket that you received upon entry. You must then insert the card into the slot, whereupon the amount due will be displayed.

When writing formally or for a company or publication, always be sure to follow the recommended style guide; it may indicate which you should use. (It may also indicate that one should use "she" or alternate between "he" and "she" when referring to different people in order to ensure that one pronoun isn't overused.)

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One can use "one" as a replacement for "you". –  MT_Head Jun 20 '11 at 7:46
    
My case is a description, not an instruction, like "A student does blah blah blah". You or one will not work in that case. –  Iti Jun 21 '11 at 23:31

The question admits no simple answer. Moreover, only by an effort can one disentangle the answer from politics, and even then not wholly. Nevertheless, let us make the effort and try.

Why to prefer he 

On the one hand, English is a Germanic language, which means among others that it has never sought a complete set of unambiguous pronouns. A Germanic language distinguishes pronouns extensively by context. For a famous example, consider the modern German sie, "she," and Sie, "you" (formal), the two words capitalized differently (though not so at the beginning of a sentence) but always pronounced alike. Whereas in English, it is she that has her own, distinctive pronoun; in modern German it is er, he.

Clumsy? Maybe. But that's Germanism for you, with roots as deep as Herodotus' tales of the frozen forests of the dim, Germanic north. You cannot alter the essential way the Germanic languages approach pronouns but by uprooting the language family entire. The pattern is etched in the languages' bones.

At any rate, on Germanic grounds, the preferred pronoun in the sex-indefinite semantical singular would be he.

Why to prefer they 

On the other hand, unlike modern German, English does admit a peculiar but nevertheless respectable, centuries-old alternative to he in the sex-indefinite semantical singular. This alternative is they.

The use of they in the sex-indefinite semantical singular is admittedly soft because it thrashes English grammatical number—as in, "A ship's captain is responsible for everything that happens on board. They are not allowed excuses." Fortunately, the practical use of they in the semantical singular usually (though not always) proves more congenial than in it does in contrived examples like the one I have just given. Unobjectionable examples of the following kind are rather more typical: "Each writer will choose the pronoun they think suits the context." (You might still prefer he, which is fine; but one cannot characterize they as wrong here.)

Both alternatives for the sex-indefinite semantical singular, he and they, have long been attested by good writers. Both can and probably should be used, even in the same literary work.

The use and misuse of she 

In recent decades, we have sometimes seen less good writers force she into the role of the sex-indefinite semantical singular. This fad represents not English style but political agitprop and should never voluntarily be done except to achieve a specific political effect. Use he or she rather, if you must, as the emphatically sex-indefinite semantical singular.

You will hear some good writers deprecate the three-word pronounal he or she, but you should understand what they probably, actually mean—and do not mean—by deprecating it. It is doubtful that a good writer deprecates he or she when the sex-indefinite nature of the pronoun calls for particular emphasis. Moreover, it can hardly be contested that today's world (for better or for worse) furnishes more subjects than formerly that call for he or she. Still, most sex-indefinite subjects do not want such emphasis, and he or she is admittedly overused.

Regarding plain she, whose use we said was forced, we should note that not all uses of she in the sex-indefinite semantical singular actually are forced. One can use she rather than he when the sex referenced is only quasi-indefinite, understood probably to be female.

Recommendations

As a default, prefer he to they for the sex-indefinite semantical singular, on the ground that Engish is a Germanic language and that he represents the better Saxon/German.

Though we have not yet mentioned it, on the uncommon occasion on which the matter arises, consider preferring she to it as the pronoun of personification (advice I have not actually followed in the answer you are reading, if only because I did not wish to distract the topic by beginning, "English is a Germanic language, which means that she has never sought a complete set of unambiguous pronouns").

Other considerations

In a college course, of course, the wise student will avoid bucking the instructor's sensibilities in the matter, whatever these sensibilities may be. Even in the unlikely event that all you learn during the four months of the course is that you and the instructor disagree, by having given the instructor's way a fair trial, you will have established a sound, respectable right to your contrary opinion. You will also have earned a high grade in the course.

Regarding language and politics, see Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four.

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Back in the 1970's (when political feminism was less prevalent), some quasi-legal documents included statements such as "Throughout this document, the singular includes the plural, and the male includes the female." It was suggested that this should be changed to "the singular embraces the plural, and the male embraces the female." –  TrevorD Jul 13 '13 at 18:01
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@TrevorD Don’t you think that this whole “male embraces the female” thing sounds a bit dated in modern society? –  tchrist Jul 13 '13 at 20:12
    
@tchrist It was intended only as a jovial aside. I'm too old always to be able to judge what is 'dated'. But we've both got 1 upvote each, so we must be both right! –  TrevorD Jul 14 '13 at 2:05

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