Writing ‘they’ to refer to a person of unspecified sex is now the norm. It’s less formal and less long-winded than writing ‘he or she’.

Advice from the Oxford English Dictionary: write ‘they’, not ‘he or she’

In our previous post on how to brief your copywriter, we wrote that a good brief ‘gives your copywriter lots to go on — the foundation on which they can build a persuasive argument for the reader’.

We were writing about a single copywriter and yet we used a plural pronoun, ‘they’. Is that right? You could argue that it’s ungrammatical, that we should have written ‘on which he or she can build’ but we’re sticking to our guns.

The history of ‘they’

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) uses ‘they’ as a singular pronoun and explains why. It points out that ‘they’ has been used as a singular pronoun to refer to a person of unspecified sex since the 16th century. In other words, when you write about a person but don’t make it clear whether they are male or female (such as ‘the owner’ or ‘the doctor’) it’s always been OK to use ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘their’ and ‘themselves’.

So why the fuss? The trend for using ‘he or she’ came about because it was also common to use ‘he’ to talk about a person of unspecified sex. Not surprisingly, the OED points out, this practice ‘came under scrutiny on the grounds of sexism’ during the late 20th century. The result: using ‘they’ has become more common.

Why you should write ‘they’

The OED warns that using ‘they’ is still not universally accepted, especially in more formal circumstances. Phrases such as ‘ask a friend if they could help’ are still criticised for being ungrammatical, it points out. But the OED also acknowledges the ‘obvious practical advantages’ of writing ‘they’ (it’s a lot less stuffy) and adopts it as part of the dictionary’s own house style.

You can’t get a much better recommendation than that.

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