There are many occasions when we want to refer to an individual person, without necessarily wishing to specify that person’s gender. And there are many good reasons to want to do this. Even though, for the time being, most people are biologically, psychologically and socially clearly either male or female, this is not true for everyone, and being forced into this male/female duality for such people can be debilitating and annoying. And even for those of us who are, for a great many of us there are aspects of our cultural/social gender that don’t suit us particularly well, and it would thus be nice if it wasn’t the first thing that people know about us whenever we are referred to using a personal pronoun.
Some have experimented with gender-neutral personal pronouns (other than the impersonal “it”, of course), such as “ey”, but because they are not currently part of the English language there seems relatively little prospect of them catching on any time soon. So what a lot of people do, instead, is to use the plural “they/them/their” as a stand-in, as in, “I have a friend who has this Future of Humanity blog. They use it to post obscure articles about esoteric topics.” Or, “The average person doesn’t know a heck of a lot about theoretical physical, mostly because they reckon they have better things to do.”
The problem with this, however, is that it can be jarring for linguistic purists like myself who are inwardly screaming, “But that is grammatically incorrect!” So it remains a dilemma. Of course one can go with “he/she”, but that quickly becomes cumbersome. So how to solve the gender condundrum if not by using the third person plural?
One way round this dilemma, however, might be to consider the question in light of what we know about the essential ambiguity of individual identity. Am I really one single entity, evolving through time? I generally assume that I am, both because our tendency to do so is grounded in evolutionary psychology and because it is constantly being reinforced by those around us. But increasingly we are coming to understand that this narrative conception of identity is only a psychological construct, and is not particularly solidly supported by evidence.
This being the case then, could we not get around the gender condundrum by using the third person plural, not as a stand-in for “he/she”, but rather as a recognition that each of us is in fact multiple. So in the above examples, the word “they” would not refer directly to the “friend who has this Future of Humanity blog” or imagined “average person”, but rather to the multiplicity of ill-defined and sometimes conflicting identities that respectively make that “friend” or “average person”. Then, no grammatical sin is being committed, except in the relatively mild sense that one is somewhat changing one’s mind about who/what one is referring to in mid-sentence, we have avoided giving irrelevant and possibly prejudicial information about that person’s “gender”, which in any case might itself be ill-define, and we have raised awareness of the essential ambiguity of our individual identity.
Just a thought.