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Completely ignoring the sexist aspect of the word, is using "he" as a gender neutral pronoun grammatically correct or incorrect? I'm well aware that using "he" may come off as sexist or politically incorrect and that it's better to use "they" but grammatically is it correct?

marked as duplicate by tchrist, Drew, anongoodnurse, Andrew Leach Jan 30 '15 at 7:24

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  • It depends on what school of grammar you adhere to. Some still don't count it as correct, especially the people who run the SAT--apparently "he or she" is the gender neutral reference in their questions. He is grammatically incorrect, to my knowledge. – Jonathan Spirit Jan 30 '15 at 2:56
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    Define "grammatically correct". No, this is not a joke; I'm perfectly serious. What does it mean? What is the test a sentence can be put to in order to ascertain this thing -- whatever you think "correct" means. I'm asking because I don't understand what you think this even means. It's an honest question and until you answer it, no meaningful response is possible. – tchrist Jan 30 '15 at 3:54
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According to the Cambridge Grammar, he was the sex-neutral pronoun for quite a while. However, eventually, when equality between women and men became prominent, the use of he became controversial because "[it] represents one of the most obvious and central cases of sexism in the English language..."

So people began using he or she instead of he as a sex-neutral coordination to avoid that sexist bias. But in informal conversation, it says, using it repeatedly can sound clumsy or clunky.

They as a sex-neutral pronoun with a singular antecedent actually dates back to Middle English. Some people use that as an argument for the use. Others argue that they is supposed to be plural, so it shouldn't be used as a singular, sex-neutral pronoun. But even still, they grows in use, and the book seems to accept it as the pronoun.

Of course, that leads to the obvious question of, "Themselves or themself?" It doesn't say that it's specifically wrong, just that it will gain further acceptance as the use of they becomes more common. And it's been thirteen years since the book was written, so I'd like to think it's quite a bit better accepted.

TL;DR: If you don't want to use they because people might object or you don't like themself, use he or she. I personally prefer they.

  • The traditionalist in me is pained to say this, but, if we will accept singular you along with yourself, then we may as well accept singular they along with theirself. – Anonym Jan 30 '15 at 3:32
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    @Anonym The Grammar never mentions theirself as an option, actually. And for good reason--that would be silly. Do we say hisself or theirselves? No, certainly not. So we could reasonably exclude theirself. – Jonathan Spirit Jan 30 '15 at 4:17
  • @JonathanSpirit [re comment] Silly? Do we say myself or meself? – Edwin Ashworth Jan 30 '15 at 10:21
  • @JonathanSpirit I meant to write themself, although I also have no objection to theirself or hisself, just as I have no objection to myself, thyself, ourselves, and yourselves. There seems to be something peculiar about the third person that makes the objective form more favourable, nevertheless. – Anonym Jan 30 '15 at 13:46
  • @EdwinAshworth I realised that too late--I could no longer edit. – Jonathan Spirit Jan 30 '15 at 14:59

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