For instance, "A politician must be able to think quickly on the spot. He or she must also have no qualms about lying."

I know some people who use "they", but as that both sounds and is ungrammatical, I'm wondering if there is any other concise and non-awkward alternative.


Apparently many do consider "they" as correct. This surprised me, because I know someone who actually wrote a grammar book, who told me in no uncertain terms that "they" could not be used (in fact, I'd asked them - ha! - this question before I posted it here). And a quick look online found legitimate sources advocating both positions. I suppose it's one of those issues, such as whether the previous sentence was incorrect for beginning with a conjunction, where it really just depends who you ask. Regardless, to me personally, "they" in the above example sounds clunky at best and incorrect at worst. So I suppose my question can be rephrased as, 'is there any alternative to 'he or she', other than 'they'?"

Secondly, to whoever tagged this as "politically-correct": acknowledging the existence of genderqueer or transgender people isn't a political issue at all, until those made uncomfortable by people unlike them make it one. Trying to avoid excluding and thus unconsciously discriminating against a group of people in your writing isn't born out of a need to be 'politically correct' - it's born out of basic human decency.

Finally, yes, in the example above, I could use a comma and avoid the need for a pronoun at all - but the question I'm asking applies to instances where one may not want to do so (i.e. the sentences are long and stringy enough as it is).

  • 8
    Who says they sounds or is ungrammatical or awkward? It's the most commonly used pronoun, and it's been used in this way for at least 700 years. It is perfectly grammatical, idiomatic, and non-awkward. Dec 5, 2014 at 3:24
  • 3
    This question appears to be off-topic because it is based on a false premise.
    – tchrist
    Dec 5, 2014 at 3:51
  • 1
    @tchrist or as a duplicate of a question about singular they? I'm sure there are plenty. I'm sure I've answered at least one myself, but I'm only finding other cases that hit upon the topic obliquely.
    – Jon Hanna
    Dec 5, 2014 at 3:57
  • 2
    I recommend not reading that grammar book. As to whether the treatment of genderqueer, transgender or other non-binary people is political or not, I'm afraid it most certainly is. Saying it's a matter of "basic human decency" is all well and good, but to suggest it is only that entails that we live in such a world that there is no cissexism (and similarly, no sexism, racism, homophobia, etc.). Since we do not, we have political struggle and since we have political struggle we have conscious effort to better align our use of language with that struggle, viz. "political correctness".
    – Jon Hanna
    Dec 5, 2014 at 13:09
  • 1
    @Jon Hanna, I suppose I see where you're coming from. But 'political correctness' has a negative connotation, and an implication that the only reason one would want to use a genderless pronoun is to seem a certain way (politically correct). Perhaps I brought that upon myself, though, when I used non-transphobic in the question line, as opposed to genderless. I don't think this question is an exact duplicate of the one Andrew mentioned, but since I think I've got my answer regardless, I suppose I don't really mind.
    – AVM
    Dec 5, 2014 at 15:54

1 Answer 1


Enter Nurse [within] and knock

FRIAR LAURENCE: Arise; one knocks; good Romeo, hide thyself.

ROMEO: Not I; unless the breath of heartsick groans,

Mist-like, infold me from the search of eyes.


FRIAR LAURENCE: Hark, how they knock!—Who's there?—Romeo, arise;

— William Shakespeare, "Romeo and Juliet", Act 3, Scene 3.

You may think it ungrammatical, but better writers than you or I have thought different. (Friar Laurence is one of Shakespeare's educated characters, not a clown or rude mechanical he would allow to speak ungrammatically).

The prohibition on singular they is just another of the strange grammatical fetishes toward not allowing a word in one place if it were the sole appropriate for another (i.e. because they can be plural when he cannot, they would declare plurality its sole domain) that arose in the 18th century and thankfully mostly died in the 20th. Either ignore such rubbish, or do be wholehearted about it and use he as those who sought to forbid they would have you do.

  • 1
    +1 - This should be our official go-to answer for this frequent question. Dec 5, 2014 at 3:48
  • I believe the problem is that ESL books pretend it does not exist.
    – tchrist
    Dec 5, 2014 at 3:52
  • 1
    @medica though we should probably just close the question as a duplicate, but as often happens while I'm sure it's a duplicate, I couldn't find one at the time.
    – Jon Hanna
    Dec 5, 2014 at 3:54
  • 2
    @tchrist You mean, “I believe the problem is that ESL books pretend they do not exist”? ;-p Dec 5, 2014 at 3:55
  • @JonHanna - I'm quite happy that you answered it, dupe or not. It's a great answer. Dec 5, 2014 at 3:57

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