He, She, It, They—Dealing With Generic Singular Personal Pronouns

The following excerpt is from a footnote on page 36 of the most nutty (and most helpful), logic textbook I own—Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic: A Logic Text Using Socratic Methods, Platonic Questions, and Aristotelian Principles (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s, 2008). He writes:

The use of the traditional inclusive generic pronoun “he” is a decision of language, not of gender justice. There are only six alternatives.

(1) We could use the grammatically misleading and numerically incorrect “they.” But when we say “one baby was healthier than the others because they didn’t drink that milk,” we do not know whether the antecedent of “they” is “one” or “others,” so we don’t know whether to give or take away the milk. Such language codes could be dangerous to baby’s health.

(2) Another alternative is the politically-intrusive “in-your-face” generic “she,” which I would probably use if I were an angry, politically-intrusive, in-your-face woman, but I am not any of those things.

(3) Changing “he” to “he or she” refutes itself in such comically clumsy and ugly revisions as the following: “What does it profit a man or woman if he or she gains the whole world but loses his or her own soul? Or what shall a man or woman give in exchange for his or her soul?” The answer is: he or she will give up his or her linguistic sanity.

(4) We could also be both intrusive and clumsy by saying “she or he.”

(5) Or we could use the neuter “it,” which is both dehumanizing and inaccurate.

(6) Or we could combine all the linguistic garbage together and use “she or he or it,” which, abbreviated, would sound like “[word removed].”

I believe in the equal intelligence and value of women, but not in the intelligence or value of “political correctness,” linguistic ugliness, grammatical inaccuracy, conceptual confusion, or dehumanizing pronouns.

There you have it.

I know what you’re asking: Where does Grammar Girl stand in the debate? She starts out a bit shilly-shally (or is it dilly-dally?) but eventually seems to favor a bold and reckless solution—using “they.”

What do you think?

13 thoughts on “He, She, It, They—Dealing With Generic Singular Personal Pronouns

  1. If the context call for a pronoun that represents either sex, I’ll often use “she”, not because I’m an in-your-face feminist, but because it doesn’t really matter to me, and if the feminists are anxious over the preponderance of male pronouns, I’m happy to use the other: it doesn’t threaten me.

    “Tony Reinke understands the sinner to stand aloof not only from society, but aloof also from herself.”

    You see? Big deal.


  2. Yes, I see your point. I have no problem mixing them up either although I think ‘they’ will be increasingly common. Until the grammar brains get this all sorted I will only speak of plural groups and never singular, unless I’m talking about a single pastor, at which point the gender pronoun is inflexible. Thanks for your comments blog readers!

  3. “Tony Reinke repeatedly states that the perfection of the human person includes the necessary recognition that the West is Best…life is peaceful there, in the open air, where the sky is blue…THIS IS WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO DO….”

    Okay, not a gender issue, but nonetheless true.

  4. And as an obscure Doctor of Theology put it once, The West is a Chest of Treasures the Best, a Nest where is comfort that cannot be Guessed, and Lest you forget you cannot Divest this land of the riches that we have Assessed (and so have been Blessed).

    (And yet, after all of that, my greatest earthly treasure arose as a star out of the East. But now she shines with Western Glory)

  5. Or we could correct the English language, so that it is as accurate as the Greek and Latin languages from which we translate the New Testament. If we need a word for clarity and accuracy, why not borrow one.

    Example: Romans 12:1, “adelphos”, which means: a (unity)+ delpho (womb – born), ie, from the same womb. Fellowship of believers who have membership with one another, fellow believers united by the bond of Christ and affection.
    And then the follow on verses in 3-12, where the singular person referenced gets translated “he,” but is still addressing ‘the adelphos’ from verse one.

    Reason for my comment: I’ve actually heard a pastor on the gender police side argue that Romans 12 does not apply to women because his Bible clearly says, “he” and “brothers.” For real.

  6. I think we should make up a new word that represents “he, she, & it”. Let’s just make up a new word like “heshe” or “hesheit” or “sheithe” (maybe not, sounds too much like a impolite four letter word), or how about (s)he ?

  7. “(2) Another alternative is the politically-intrusive “in-your-face” generic “she,” which I would probably use if I were an angry, politically-intrusive, in-your-face woman, but I am not any of those things.”

    So…Kreeft is linking the written recognition of females with being “politically intrusive?” Should the poor dear apologize for her existence as well?

    I say this not as a mere snark and as someone often appreciative of Kreeft. On this point “the man” is coming of as “the oppressive doofus.”

  8. Regarding obscure theologians and stars, Patrick Star (no, not that one; I’m talking about the one from Spongebob), speaking on the subject of “Wumbo” and “Wumbology” did clarify the way Wumbo was to used stating, “I wumbo…you wumbo…he, she, me wumbo.” Didn’t use they or it but was very gender specific and possessive. You can confirm it here.

  9. in writing when referring to a dog, a canine, and you do not know the gender, do you refer to the dog as he or it?

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