Broken English: How To Survive A Shifting Language

Language is amazingly dynamic. Editors, who seek to tame dynamism with rules, have a delicate job.

August 17, 2023 00:54 EDT
Dear FO° Reader,

English is broken. A very basic feature of the language no longer works.
Credit – saoirse2013 /

In Modern English, the singular neuter pronoun, “it,” refers only to objects, not persons. So, the language is left without a singular neuter personal pronoun.

For centuries, formal English used the pronoun “he” to refer to a subject whose gender is unknown. The Douay-Rheims Version of the Bible, for example, reads, “For whosoever shall do the will of my Father, that is in heaven, he is my brother, and sister, and mother.” Surely Jesus is not saying that this person has to be a man!

But the language has changed since 1582. Many contemporary speakers of English are uncomfortable with the implication that the default person is a man. Style guides have reflected this change: “Do not presume maleness in constructing a sentence by defaulting to he/his/him,” instructs the AP Stylebook. So we have to find other solutions.

Some speakers have promoted the use of “they” as a singular, which has a history in English but is generally associated with more colloquial speech. In formal writing, it has the potential to introduce confusion. Academic writers often use “she” as the default pronoun rather than “he,” but many readers find this jarring; it emphasizes gender in contexts where the gender of the subject is not supposed to be important. “He,” since it is no longer the default, runs into the same problem. Attempts to coin a new pronoun, such as “xe” or “ze,” have failed to gain any traction. Constructions such as “he or she” are awkward and burdensome to the reader if repeated.

Style guides such as AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style advise either to avoid these alternatives entirely or use them sparingly. But it is not clear what they do want us to use. Perhaps the best advice that they have to give is to revise a sentence entirely to avoid singular pronouns.

Much of the time, this works. We’ve done it regularly at Fair Observer, and it has probably escaped your notice—a benefit which none of the other solutions provide. But how long can we go on telling an English speaker not to write a sentence that occurs naturally in his own language?

It is too late to turn the clock back on default “he,” whether or not we would even want to. The topic is still young, and there is time for a new solution to emerge. English speakers are creative people. To replace another missing pronoun (the plural second person), American Southerners and Indian South Africans came up with “y’all”—independently!—and in dialects where even “y’all” is becoming singular, newer expressions such as “all y’all” are ready to step in and take its place.

But that is the role of speakers, not editors. Our role is to communicate to you in the clearest way possible using the language that you already speak. So, for now, we will keep revising sentences to avoid the singular neuter personal pronoun, and we will wait in hopeful expectation for what the endlessly dynamic English language community has to show us next.


Anton Schauble
Assistant Editor
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