Geoff Pullum has an excellent Language Log post analyzing a quoted passage in which the speaker moves between she and they while talking about the same person. I love his summary:

There is a subtle and beautiful system here. It is not to be dismissed with the idiotic sexist authoritarianism of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (p. 60: “Do not use they… Use the singular pronoun… he“).


  1. “it is American writers who are more inclined to live in terror of the usage fascists”
    Considering that in the UK the split infinitive is still a source of great controversy, I would be careful about accusing American writers of living in terror…
    Perhaps a more reasonable assertion would be to say that the details of language evolution differ randomly with country and region.

  2. Richard Hershberger says

    The split infinitive is still an issue in Britain? That’s ironic, since it was Fowler’s characterization of this as a superstition that did in this rule in the US. Nowadays, US prescriptive usage writers routinely use their toleration of the split infinitive as evidence of their liberality.

  3. That’s a lovely piece of writing, and I’m glad it was noticed.
    We still have these arguments in the British office where I work as a journalist. They’re almost always frivolous, and are generally resolved by the application of the appropriate Orwellian rule – the sixth, by preference. Which is not to say that we don’t take style seriously – we have our own style guide, and frequently refer to the Economist’s – but we like to have fun while we’re at it.
    ‘They’ as a singular pronoun is used for the tomb of the unknown gender, except for companies and other organisations which are singular and neuter. This catches out a lot of journalists, including myself, because writing about a company in the plural seems more natural. Yet logically they aren’t: I suppose because of that natural ambiguity the singular ‘they’ should not be used.
    The most fun I have with ‘they’ is when I’m writing something faintly scandalous or confessional, and wish to disguise the gender of a correspondent on whom I report. Then it’s a trick to make the narrative as transparent as possible, so that while the reader might reasonably be expected to be told the gender they don’t necessarily notice that this is missing. Or so I hope.

  4. This is a lovely passage, but isn’t in fact the real antecedent of “they” “one of those huge West African traders,” hence the “they” to refer to the group and traits of the group, and “she” for the individual in the next seat?

  5. “Then you hear the footsteps coming down the plane boom, boom, boom and then you hear move over! Their 25 kg luggage is hurled onto your lap, their boom box is pressed against your shoulder. You all but carry their clothes on your head…”
    Sounds to me like a single person is being mentioned, but I guess it might be vaguely referencing the whole group the way “you all” can in similar contexts.

  6. In defense for dear old Strunk and White, it is to be used for those morons who simply cannot understand grammar no matter how many times it is explained to them. The antiquated, sexist rules concerning pronouns is easily avoided by someone who has a mastery of the language and understands the artful use of “they” as a first person, singular, neuter, HUMAN pronoun.
    Strunk and White just make things simple for English teachers who don’t want to deal with the drivel students learn to “write” from the internet or other poor teachers. They are not, by any means, law.

  7. Michael farris says

    “someone who has a mastery of the language and understands the artful use of “they” as a first person, singular, neuter, HUMAN pronoun”
    first person?

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