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Grammar magic: when it, he or she wants to be they

Wednesday, August 11, 2010 @ 11:08 PM
posted by Barbsawyers

We all learned back in grammar class about using pronouns when referring again to our subject.  Dick became he and Jane became she.

But Mrs. Clarke never told me what to do when it or he or she wants to become they.

grammar query: can I use they to mean he or she?

As in, the team won the award because they are so good at customer service. Or the cyclist must obey traffic signals if they want to arrive safely.

Referring to the team as they makes sense, as we all know it’s made up of more than one person.

Calling the cyclist they works because your readers know you’re referring to cyclists in general. It also lets you  side step the awkward but politically correct he or she, which was not an issue back in my time with Mrs. Clarke.

The trouble is the grammar purists hate this. So when I’m writing for them, I open my bag of tricks. Presto!  I turn he or she or it into a plural.

So the team becomes the team members and the cyclist becomes cyclists.

Another way to avoid the awkward he or she construction is to alternate between referring to he and she. However, this works only in a longer text, when it can become obvious that you’re not showing any gender preference. You also need to avoid inadvertent stereotyping, such as referring to the executive team as he or the nursing unit as she.

As a recovered grammar Nazi, I understand the purists. It has taken me years to get comfortable with more casual grammar.

Personally, I’m comfortable with  reading people who shuffle between the team or the cyclist and they. But because my brand is based on a dexterity with language,  I prefer to keep both the casual and strict grammar people happy.

I think  Mrs. Clarke would approve. Do you?

 

One Response to “Grammar magic: when it, he or she wants to be they”

  1. Zoomit.ca says:

    Grammar magic: when it, he or she wants to be they « Sticky Communication…

    You probably write about “the team” as “they” because everyone knows you’re referring to more than one person. But the grammar purists hate this. So here’s my trick: turn “the team” into “team members.”…


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