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She, he or they? What to write when someone's sex is unknown

Photo by John Lawlor on flickr

The English language contains some throwbacks to times that were, well, less inclusive.

Probably chief among them is the use of ‘he’ as a default pronoun for someone whose sex can’t be determined, as in, ‘If a writer wants to communicate well, he should not make his readers feel excluded.’ These days, treating maleness as the ‘default’ sex will alienate many readers. So how else can we refer to an individual whose sex is unknown?

· Pluralise. Instead of the example above, how about, ‘If writers want to communicate well, they should not make their readers feel excluded’?

· Use ‘they’ instead of ‘he’, ‘their’ instead of ‘his’, etc. Some dislike this because ‘they’ and ‘their’ are otherwise only used for plurals, and their use for singular entities is seen as ungrammatical. But it’s not a new-fangled thing: ‘they’ has been used in this way for over 400 years. And grammar is largely just a collection of conventions, some of which contradict other conventions.

· Use ‘he or she’. Many find this solution a tad clunky and distracting, though.

· Alternate between ‘he’ and ‘she’. It’s a neat idea, but it does make readers stop to think about the writer’s gender politics, so this can also be distracting.

· Use ‘she’. After all, it’s been ‘he’ for centuries. Why not switch it for a change?

Other proposed solutions have included brand-new non-gendered words like ‘zie’ and ‘hir’, but none of these have caught on. I think ‘they’ or pluralisation, depending on the context, are the best options, largely because most other approaches risk distracting readers from the writer’s meaning.