“I would have every body marry if they can do it properly.”—Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814)
When I was in high school, my teachers told me that I couldn’t use the word “I” in a formal essay. I was taught to refer to the human race as “mankind” or “man” (e.g., Man’s Search for Meaning). When referring to a hypothetical individual, my teachers maintained that masculine pronouns such as “he” and “his” ought to be used (e.g., When the average student contemplates his future in these difficult economic times, he invariably worries about whether or not he’ll be able to find a good job after he graduates).
When I was an undergraduate at Concordia University, my professors told me that using “I” in a formal essay was perfectly acceptable. What’s more, they told me that referring to the human race as “mankind” was sexist; “humankind” was to be used instead. My professors also told me that using masculine pronouns to refer to the hypothetical individual was sexist. But they never really provided me with a viable alternative, making philosophical essays especially difficult to write. Most of us got around the problem by avoiding personal pronouns altogether. When personal pronouns were absolutely unavoidable, we generally resorted to the gender neutral “they”.
When I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, my professors taught me that “they” referred to more than one person; it was plural, and could not be used to describe a hypothetical individual. Thankfully, these professors did provide us with alternatives. But they were all more or less ugly and awkward (e.g., “he/she”, “he or she”); even the best of the proposed compromises, which involved alternating between “he” and “she” throughout your essay, proved, in practice, awkward. Still, I’ve been preaching this grammatical gospel to my students for years, dutifully correcting their improper usage of the word “they”.
But I’ve just recently learned that “they” is a perfectly acceptable all-purpose gender-neutral pronoun. Shout it from the rooftops at the top of your lungs, friends: Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we’re free at last: “they” is a perfectly respectable singular pronoun. Come on, folks, if it was good enough for Jane Austen, then it’s good enough for you and me. YES, this is indeed what keeps me up on a cold March night. And NO, I refuse to get a life.
—John Faithful Hamer, Twilight of the Idlers (2017)