About every six months or so, I write myself into a corner. And I don’t mean that I get caught up in plot or dialog, or while formulating a concise argument; yes, I sometimes have those problems, but that’s not what I am referring to. What I’m talking about is an unreasonable trap in the English language, the lack of a singular, androgynous pronoun for an individual.

“What?” you ask? I don’t blame you. Let me demonstrate.

“The problem with formulating simple-yet-sound education policy is that we’re trying to write a single, universal plan to address every student’s needs, but any given individual student is not the average, or median, or norm. ???? (insert third person, singular pronoun) is just that, an individual, containing thoughts, emotions, experience, and a frame of reference entirely specific to ???? (insert third person grammatical object).”

In the above example, there is no accurate, androgynous, and grammatically correct pronoun to replace the question marks, and that drives me insane!

Think I’ve got options? Let’s look at them:

  • “He” and “him” is, in essence, sexist if not chauvinistic. As would be “She” and “her.”
  • “He/she” and “him/her” is cumbersome and likely breaks the reader’s pace.
  • “It”–Really? No.
  • “They” while widely accepted and linguistically communicative, is not grammatically correct as it is reserved for the plural only.

Am I missing anything? Any grammarians out there have a solution that has eluded me? Seriously, chime in here. I’d love to hear it. I don’t claim to be a grammatical expert, just one who tries to use it good (yes, that’s a joke).

I fully recognize the practice of alternating between “he” and “she” throughout a given piece but A) this too is cumbersome, for the writer and B) in my opinion, it is a circumlocutory method; it simply doesn’t solve the problem.

Could I change the structure of the sentence or paragraph so as not to require this non-existent pronoun? Probably, but therein lies my point, why should I have to? If our rules of language do not account for a common annoyance such as this, it is our language that should be adapted, not the writing.

After all, when a crescent wrench was not conducive to tightening the faucet bolt beneath a sink, plumbers did not redesign the sink, nor extend the depth of the countertops to allow use of the bulky tool. Rather, they created the basin wrench, specially adapted to this purpose, and solved the problem.

So I say, to hell with it. I’m issuing a new rule. Since so many of us use it informally anyway, and there is seldom any misunderstanding of what the writer or speaker means in its usage, I say, let’s just make it okay to use “they” in this instance. So what if it’s supposed to be for plural usage only? It fits.

It’s short, simple, androgynous, and seems to work quite well for the plural without offending anyone. Other cues in the sentence or paragraph will have already clarified whether we are referring to one person or several. The primary usage of the corresponding noun (prior to use of the pronoun) will identify with more clarity anyway.

It’s both tragic and comical that we’ve not yet closed this gap in our language. So grammarians, I say, make it so! We’ve waited long enough; we’ve earned it.

And the next time someone writes that they’re fed up with ridiculous gaps in our language, I will be able to identify with them and even agree with what they say. (See? It works!)

So let it be written. So let it be done.

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