Category Archives: pronouns

Gender and number distinctions in English

Some languages force distinctions which other languages ignore.  And some languages drop distinctions which other languages find useful.

“Call me ‘they’ please.”

For example, the French say “tu”  for “you” when they mean an intimate friend or family member.  For strangers or for formal situations, the French say “vous.”

In English, we say “you” for everyone—friend, stranger, sister—and for singular and plural.  Whereas the French need two words—“tu” and “vous”—English-speakers need only one.

This can bring both a pain and pleasure.  For English speakers learning French, needing to remember when to use “tu” and “vous” can seem a needless distinction.  If one word suffices in English, then why can’t one word suffice in French?

For French speakers learning English, the ease of learning one word, “you,” is a pleasure.  But they might think something is lost—that fine distinction between “tu” and “vous.”  Sometimes “you” might seem too impersonal.

Something of this same forced distinction applies to the new use of “they” to mean the singular as well as the plural.  I get the reasoning and feel sympathy for people for whom gender is not clear cut.  But for me, after a lifetime of “they” meaning the plural, I find it strange that “they” now should include “he” or “she.”

I feel like the French must feel when asked to include everyone in “you.”  Or like Iranians—who have three or four words for “love”—when asked to fit those shades of meaning into one English word.  Or like English speakers with at least nine verb tenses plus modal verb tenses—when asked to express all that nuance into a single Chinese verb.

I wish English had a singular personal pronoun unrelated to gender, something like “it” which could apply to people.  How about “ye”? Or “thee”?  It seems easier to wrap my mind around a new pronoun than to expand and confuse the meaning of a traditional word.

Yet, English, like all languages, changes as new needs arise.  And English speakers, like me, adapt.

What does revising mean?

In working with a middle grades student recently, I mentioned that, based on my experience, many English teachers don’t teach revising of essays.  “Not mine,” said the student proudly, opening his computer and pulling up a page called “Revising” written by his teacher.  “Read it,” he said.  I did.  Here is the gist of it.

  1. Find instances of the verb “said” in all its forms, count them, and replace ¾ of them.
  2. Identify pronouns, count them, and replace half with nouns.
  3. Identify certain “boring” words (from a list given by the teacher) and change 99% of them to  more detailed vocabulary.
  4. Make sure your writing follows your organizer.

One of the problems with these instructions (aside from their usefulness) is what is missing about revising.  Little or none of the advice deals with developing a thesis or main idea, organizing it, developing and sequencing ideas, writing logically, creating tone and voice, writing with varied sentence structures, or writing introductions and conclusions.  Yet these are far more important areas of writing than identifying the verb “to say” or replacing pronouns with nouns.

Students today are poor writers for many reasons.  Lack of practice, poor modeling, and little teacher intervention until the writing is being graded are a few.  But so is poor or little advice on how to revise, and the kind of teacher training which largely ignores research.

I suspect the teacher who composed the above revising instructions, like most teachers, is well-intentioned.  But she is probably not an experienced writer.  If she were, she would know that the verb “said” should not be replaced with words like “reported,” spoke,” “advised,” or “shouted.” Those synonyms draw attention away from what was said to how it was said, diluting the message.  Pronouns should not routinely be replaced with nouns.  At first reference, a noun should be used, but in subsequent referrals in the same paragraph, a pronoun should be used. Yes,  “boring” words should be replaced, especially verbs, with more precise vocabulary.  And yes again, first drafts should follow an organizer.

Two out of four are good advice.  50%.  This is  reason why students today are poor writers.

He? She? They?


A person from a nearby university was in the news lately.  This person’s name was given, but it is an androgynous name like Chris or Morgan which masks a person’s gender.  Later in the article this person was referred to as “they.” At first I thought “they” referred to several people, and I went back to reread the article’s beginning, thinking I had missed something.  But I hadn’t.  As I continued to read, I discovered that “they” is the pronoun this person preferred to be called.

Using “they” to refer to a known individual confuses me.  Using “they” to refer to a corporation, team or committee does not, although it seems grammatically wrong.  “The IRS sent me a letter.  They said I owe more taxes.”  When I work with students, I explain that the IRS is one government agency, so it should be referred to as “it” even though in informal speech many people refer to it as “they.”

What do you think about this?  Would you write about a particular individual and refer to that individual as “they”?

I have not faced this situation, yet it is only a matter of time since more and more people identify as gender neutral.  And then there are people who were born one gender but change their gender, like Bruce Jenner / Caitlyn Jenner.  What are our options if we want to be respectful yet accurate?

  • Refer to a person as “he” or “she” unless that person specifically asks us to use a different pronoun?
  • Guess which pronoun to use?
  • Ask an androgynous-looking or -sounding person which pronoun to use? Or is it up to the person to ask us to use a particular pronoun?
  • Call the person by a full name instead of using a pronoun?

Perhaps with time using “they” to refer to a specific individual (not an unknown person) will sound normal.  But at present it sounds wrong to my ear.  I would probably repeat the person’s name instead of replacing it with a pronoun as long as that was practicable.  But that might lead to some convoluted sentence structures.  In that case, I would probably use the pronoun the person prefers, explaining that to the reader.

A 21st century dilemma for sure.