I was writing an email and a friend pointed out that I should stop using "he/she" and instead always use "they" to refer to a person of unknown gender, since "he or she" implies there are only two gender, which is very insulting to people who don't identify as either male or female.

I've never heard of anyone being insulted by "he or she". Should I make an effort to change my writing habits, or is my friend wrong?

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    As far as I'm concerned people are either male or female. I haven't even started to think about what to call people who claim neither identification. But I suppose we shall all have to address that point if things carry on as they are doing. – WS2 Mar 11 at 19:47
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    There are certainly people who identify as neither male nor female, and the use of they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun is well-established, even if certain grammatical prescriptivists object. However, whether a phrase is generally "offensive" is a question of opinion. – Benjamin Kuykendall Mar 11 at 20:04
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    Any answer to this Q. would be "primarily opinion-based": answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. As such, it does not meet the criteria for Qs on this site. – TrevorD Mar 11 at 20:19
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    I propose using "e" for "he/she", "h" for "him/her", and "s" for "his/hers". Easy to remember! – Hot Licks Mar 11 at 20:33
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    I have never heard a suggestion that "he or she" is offensive, but it is painfully clunky. Especially when the alternative "they" is well established (it is older than singular "you" I think, and no one objects to that nowadays). – user323578 Mar 11 at 21:43

I'm a grammarian pedant by nature, I'm in my very late 40's, male, cis-gendered and so on.

That said: the force gendered he or she has been a construction to avoid in technical writing for quite some time. It's not necessarily offensive per se, it's just uninclusive and clumsy.

They as a pronoun is not incredibly new, it's been brewing and in use for some time, and is in fact in pretty broad use: it's most typically the accepted pronoun of either non-gender-binary folks or some who effectively decline-to-state.

The context in which a he or she can be directly offensive is if a given individual or group has informed one of their preferred pronoun, and one is explicitly ignoring said preference, and forcing a he or she upon said individual or group unwanted, whether that be due to one's inner grammarian pedant, one's political views or even just plain cussedness.

To re-iterate my earlier point: in general writing, technical writing etc, it's been long been considered poor practise to gender language unnecessarily.

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    From a legal writing perspective, using "he/his/him" for all persons of unknown gender, and stating that the masculine pronoun includes all genders, is the best solution. A legal document must above all else do something, and avoiding microaggressions entails the kind of multitasking that makes people stupid. "They" does not work, because it is ambiguous in number, leaving context to bail out imprecise drafting. That's just bad practice. The masculine pronouns are easy to read and easy to understand. If I were king, the masculine pronouns would be universalized, and that would be that. – remarkl Mar 11 at 22:28
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    @remarkl I completely disagree with this. He is not only as ambiguous in terms of gender, it's actually worse. You can easily construct a sentence to make it clear that they are the person who acted alone. There is no way you can similarly disambiguate the gendered use of he. – Jason Bassford Mar 12 at 6:08
  • @JasonBassford Fifty years of writing contracts says otherwise. "He" is never ambiguous in a legal document that defines it as including all genders. Can you write such an ambiguous sentence? – remarkl Mar 12 at 11:53

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