Using 'they' in place of 'he/she'

It recent decades, it has become more common to see the word “they” in place of “he” or “she”, in sentences like this:

When a user logs on, they enter a username and password.

That’s less awkward than alternatives like “he or she enters a password”, “he/she enters a password”, “he enters a password” etc.

However, “they” still sounds a little weird to many ears, as we predominantly think of it as a plural pronoun. Others are more militant in their opposition to “they” in such contexts, declaring it just plain wrong.

So is it wrong? Is it just another bastardization of English, pandering to overzealous political correctness? Actually, probably not.

It’s surprising to find that this use of “they” goes back a long way—perhaps further than you might have guessed. It was, indeed, used in the King James Bible, written way back in the early 1600s:

… if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses. –Matthew 18:35

So historically, this usage of they/their is fine. Apparently, it was a group of grammarians in the 1700s who decided that this usage of a plural word was inappropriate with a singular noun. (The recommendation was to use “he” and just live with the gender bias.)

Avoiding both plural pronouns but also gender bias can lead to absurd sentences (as noted on the Merriam Webster site), such as—

Everyone should do his or her best in whatever situations he or she finds himself or herself in.

It’s worth asking ourselves, then, why there’s resistance to the use of “they” with singular subjects. “Because they is plural”, someone might protest. But words mean whatever we decide they mean, and plenty of words have various meanings in different contexts. Words get their meaning from how they are used, and if “they” has been used for centuries to refer to singular entities, then it simply does refer to singular things!

Anyhow, that’s my take on it. I’m now trying to train myself to use “they” in this context more often and not shy away from it. And if anyone doesn’t like that, then they can just “suffer in their jocks”, as we say in Australia. :stuck_out_tongue:


Are you nuts? Do you want me to be completely crazy? Are you making English more complex for those of us who don’t speak it natively? :stuck_out_tongue:

In my country, we don’t say he or she… we just go with “he” and live with it. Only extreme feminists want it to change the gender. But for me, there are loads of things that we need to worry about than dedicate to things like this. Like peace or hunger in the world. Only when everyone has a house, food and can leave peacefully, then we can worry about if we should use he, she or they


When I was at (an all-girls) school, I was taught that “he” was correct, and this usage was convention and didn’t denote gender. Likewise, “mankind” is a noun meaning all people, not just the male population. So to me, “he” is acceptable to use when you don’t know gender, or want to include both; “they” just sounds wrong because I was taught that it is wrong.

I’ve never felt the need for - or liked - politically-correct usage. Perhaps that’s because I’ve been fortunate enough to have been taught that equality is not about language but about attitudes.

Somewhat off-topic:
As a teenager, I was involved in hospital radio. There were around forty fully-trained volunteers, able to operate the studio - and only two of them were women. There was no bar to women - and, indeed, a general enthusiasm to have more trained women - but most of the female volunteers were more interested in other aspects, like ward visiting. At a meeting one day, where I was the only female present, one of the younger guys - my age - used a crude expression, and was reminded by an older man that there were ladies present. He looked around in genuine bafflement and asked “Where?” When it was pointed out that I was right next to him he replied “Oh, she doesn’t count - she’s one of the guys.”

In my book, if you treat everyone equally as people, pronouns don’t matter.

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It is a little more complicated here where there is an abundance of a third gender:

Got to keep up standards, old dear, even in the war!

It’s funny how we can be content to say that “he” (an overtly gender-specific word) doesn’t denote gender, and yet fiercely resist the suggestion that “they” doesn’t denote number. :smiley:

Isn’t “it” the third gender … sort of? :stuck_out_tongue:


That is because it is wrong, Ralph.

(For Ralph’s next thread, he will discuss if water is actually wet…) :wink:

Is it? English is still a living language (hence why words get added to the dictionary every year), and if common patterns continue, they often become lexicon. So what was wrong before is now correct.

For example, the common past tense for the verb plead used to be pled. But common usage patterns have changed that to pleaded instead. Drives me CRAZY, but it’s common lexicon now.


I always tend to associate “it” with animals and prefer the following Urban Dictionary version of “shim” or even “sher”, the list goes on and many other versions have been discussed at length:

a he-she, she-male, transvestite
whooah look at that shim! its more manly than that one!

Ain’t is in the dictionary - why not try using it in your next job interview…

There is proper, professional, educated English, and then there is everything else.

Nothing personal, Ralph, but starting a thread on "Using ‘they’ in place of ‘he/she’ is like asking why is it wrong to say, “I ain’t got no work today.”

Is this what computer geeks ponder in their free time? :grimacing:


I moved 4 posts to a new topic: Why do programmers care about Grammar/Language usage?

Didn’t want to distract from the original intention of the article, so I moved the bit about “computer geeks” pondering about this to a separate topic.

It’s a good topic for web developer, as it can have an effect on how content is written.


What concerns me is defending lazy-English.

If Ralph would have framed things as, “A lot of people use ‘they’ instead of ‘he/she’ out of convenience or ignorance, but here is what the proper grammar is…” then it wouldn’t seem so bad.

Just my opinion.

It is like when people come on SitePoint and defend sloppy coding practices. (I know most of you don’t like that.)

So, I am saying I don’t like it when people defend poor English.

In the U.S., we are quickly approaching one of the most illiterate societies in the Industrialized World. And it burns me up to no end when people rationalize or justify sounding illiterate.

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I’ve always used “they” and I’ve never really thought about it. It just sounds natural to me and saves from the chance of accidentally offending anyone.

Changing simple little pedantic things like this can change the way you think about things overall, which helps break down boundaries and I believe it helps foster freer thinking. I actually try to apply the same logic of “Simple Changes/Big Results” to a lot of things in my life.



It’s not lazy English - it’s dealing with the odd situation in English where pronouns don’t come with a gender like some other languages. It also is an attempt to deal with a clumsy writing matter.

Oh, and it’s not a new style of writing - they vs he/she usage apparently goes back to the 16th century, and with todays focus on gender neutrality, the approach can alleviate an potential and/or implied perception problem.


Actually, I don’t mind if other folk write “they”. (I much prefer it to he/she, in fact.) I just can’t bring myself to write it - except here, where I finally bit the bullet and decided I should adopt the convention of using it when referring to a member whose username doesn’t indicate one or 'tother. (Personally, I have no problem being referref to as “he” by members who don’t know I’m not.)

At the end of the day, the most important thing is to communicate meaning accurately, and if that requires non-standard grammar, so be it. (There is a sentence in one of the Harry Potter books which reads “The class rose to its feet.” Grammatically correct, but the first time I read it, it conjured up an image of the classroom growing feet and sprinting away… )

Actually, we spend a lot of it helping people with their (or their client’s) problems for free :stuck_out_tongue:


It’s not that simple.

The most correct would be a singular, genderless pronoun, but sadly the English language lacks this, so we need to pick from a set of imperfect choices.

  1. “He or she” is the simplest substitution that’s grammatically correct, but it makes your writing cumbersome and awkward. Avoiding a cumbersome and awkward usage doesn’t make you lazy. “Vigorous writing is concise.” I think “he or she” is the least good of all our options. Don’t get so hung up on the rules that you lose sight of the goal. The goal is clear and concise communication.
  • “They” is simple and concise and widely understood, but technically not correct grammar.

  • You could change the whole sentence to plural so that “they” becomes grammatically correct, but you may find that pluralized sentences don’t seem to carry the same punch.

  • You could avoid pronouns, and instead say “the user”, “the developer”, “the reader”, “the writer”, etc.

  • Or, let’s face it, the English language is stuck with the generic masculine. Sometimes you just need to use “he”.

Personally, I try #4 first, but if it doesn’t sound natural, then either #2 or #5 are usually the next best.

Just for context, I’m English (though I’d rarely refer to myself as such), was taught in a strictly disciplinarian all-male, highly academic school run by Irish Christian Brothers (I think I got over that part - don’t mind the twitch will you).

I have long used ‘they’, as opposed to he/she, unless I am absolutely certain that the person to whom I may be referring is of one, or other, gender. I see nothing wrong at all in its use, it certainly doesn’t look odd to me. Perhaps the perception comes more with those whose first language has words with a gender, buts just me guessing.

Actually, I think it’s those that typically speak English as their native/primary language that have more awareness, sensitivity to it. With such a push for diversity awareness (race, gender, religion, sexual preference), there’s a hyper-awareness to anything which might be construed as discriminatory that sometimes people bring awareness to things which really weren’t an issue until someone brought it up.

Possibly, but then I’ve been living and and working in Riyadh for over 15 years now. It’s proably fair to say that PC behaviours haven’t exactly caught on round here yet, though I can see how some of the cultural norms around here might serve to push in the opposite direction. That’s all a bit of an aside though.