English has three third-person singular pronouns: he, she, and it, for men, women, and things respectively. Well into the twentieth century, writers used he as a “generic” pronoun. That is they used he to refer to an individual of unspecified gender — like anyone, somebody, everyone, the reader, a parent, the average voter, and so on.
If anyone buys his essay on the internet, he will fail the class.
Today, many readers find the use of he as a generic pronoun unacceptable because it excludes reference to women. Even if you don’t find the generic he offensive or jarring, many of your readers will. So using it can undermine your ethos, making you sound thoughtless and chauvinistic.
How do you avoid the generic pronoun he (or him, or his, for that matter)? You have several options.
If anyone buys his or her essay on the internet, he or she will fail the class.
Using both masculine and feminine pronouns (his or her, he or she) is more inclusive, but it’s also clumsy, wordy, graceless prose. And double pronouns get clumsier and wordier and more graceless the more often you use them:
Everyone must write his or her name in his or her textbook so his or her instructor can identify his or her textbook if he or she loses it.
A journalist can’t be so shy that he or she can’t bring himself or herself to go up to a stranger he or she sees and ask him or her to give him or her his or her opinion.
An occasional double pronoun might work fine. But if you use them too often, they will clog up your prose and annoy your readers.
If anyone buys her essay on the internet, she will fail the class.
Anybody who gets his friend to write his essay for him will also fail.
Some writers switch back and forth between she and he, alternating between them every other sentence, or paragraph, or page, or chapter. Alternating pronouns leaves each individual sentence potentially offensive, since using she as a generic pronoun is just as sexist as using he, but in theory the work as a whole is appropriately even-handed. In practice, this technique is often confusing and always distracting.
If students buy their essays on the internet, they will fail the class.
Changing the singular “anyone” to the plural “students” allows you to use the plural pronouns “their” and “they.” In most cases, a plural subject solves the pronoun problem, but sometimes it distorts your meaning.
Consider the sentence: “A single student who plagiarizes his paper disgraces his university.” If you changed it to, “Students who plagiarize their papers disgrace their universities,” you would lose the idea that just one student’s plagiarism dishonors the university. But as long as it doesn’t twist your meaning, changing to a plural subject neatly sidesteps the whole issue of sexist pronouns.
If anyone buys their essay on the internet, they will fail the class.
Employing they (and them, their, themselves, and so on) as a singular gender-neutral pronoun is common in everyday speech and informal writing, and many authorities — including The Chicago Manual of Style, Garner’s Modern American Usage, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, and the Oxford English Dictionary — endorse using singular they in formal writing as well.
Other authorities, however, disagree. The MLA Handbook, for example, says: “They, them, their, and theirs cannot logically be applied to a single person” (§1.10). Logical or not, competent authors of English do, in fact, use they as a singular pronoun and always have (see below).
Examples of Singular They
Here are just a few examples of writers using they to refer to a singular antecedent. As you can see, this grammatical convention has a long history, and many distinguished authors have employed it.
“Bath ware made sun and mon, / Aiþer wit þer ouen light.”
[Both were made sun and moon, / either with their own light]
— Cursor Mundi, Prologue, lines 388–89 (c. 1300)
“And whoso findeth him out of swich blame, / They wol come up and offre in Goddes name”
— Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Pardoner’s Prologue,” lines 97–98 (c. 1380)
“Eche of theym sholde goo in to his countree for to make theymselfe redy.”
— William Caxton, The Foure Sonnes of Aymon, chapter 1 (1489)
“Now this King did keepe a great house, that euery body might come and take their meat freely.”
— Sir Philip Sidney, Arcadia Book 2, chapter 14 (1590)
“There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend.”
— William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, 4.3.1–2 (1594)
“God send everyone their heart’s desire.”
— William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, 3.4.55 (1599)
“So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.”
— Matthew 18:35, King James Version (1611)
“Upon which everybody fell a laughing, as how could they help it?”
— Henry Fielding, Tom Jones Book 8, chapter 11 (1749)
“Nobody meant to be unkind, but nobody put themselves out of their way to secure her comfort.”
— Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, chapter 2 (1814)
“If everybody minded their own business … the world would go round a deal faster than it does.”
— Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, chapter 6 (1865)
“One wants something that will encourage conversation, particularly at the end of the season when every one has practically said whatever they had to say …”
— Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, Act 1, scene 1 (1895)
“She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes.”
— C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, chapter 1 (1952)
While there’s no single cure-all for sexist pronouns, if you use plural subjects or the singular they — depending on which works better in a given context — you should be able to make your prose sound both fair-minded and graceful.