Blog / 2015 / The “He” Problem

February 5, 2015

I’m talking about the way some people use “he” as a nonspecific pronoun, like if they’re talking about what makes someone a professional artist and they say:

He makes art regularly and behaves in a business-like manner, while also having the recognition of his peers.

When I read or hear a sentence like this one, I tune out, and I know I’m not the only woman who does. I’m distracted as I try to imagine a world where women can’t be artists.

boys don’t always dominate girls in social hierarchies
poster for Crime Against Nature

Using “he” as a nonspecific pronoun is the single easiest way to alienate large numbers of potential audience members for what you’re saying. And, despite the fact that there’s a simple fix, “he” is used far too often.

I’ve seen men writers claim that they use “he” because it’s convention or because they’re trying to keep things simple. I’ve watched as they squirm inside their own text, inviting me to not be offended by their “he”-ing and failing to convince even themselves that it’s acceptable.

girls can be the ones who bring home the bacon
poster for Crime Against Nature

To be fair, the English language does not have a good nonspecific pronoun to use when referring to a single person. “It” is not going to cut it, and “one” is mostly ruined by all the bad advice you’ve ever gotten from posh people who think that saying “one should do this and one shouldn’t do that” is somehow more appropriate than saying “do this, not that.”

Nope, English fails with the nonspecific pronoun in the singular, but it does have one saving grace: its pronoun that refers to people as a group is completely nonspecific. “They” is here to save the day!

some species can’t be described in terms of “girls” and “boys”
poster for Crime Against Nature

For example, when you’re talking about what makes someone a professional artist, you can say:

They make art regularly and behave in a business-like manner, while also having the recognition of their peers.

Using the plural pronoun may make your grammar a little fun-tastic, but I’m guessing that there are fewer extreme grammarians than there are women in the world. And the grammarians will only be annoyed by your rule-bending, instead of being completely cut out by your word choice.

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