Let’s say you’re dealing with a sentence where your reader can’t deduce someone’s gender, and you want a pronoun:
“An attorney in our Shively office recently argued a case before the Supreme Court of the United States. He and his client — a manufacturer appealing a case involving commercial free speech — prevailed.”
This example used the traditional default pronoun for indeterminate gender nouns. When I was first taught grammar, students were instructed to go with male variations for pronoun forms — he, his, him.
Nowadays, however, we strive to rid our writing of such gender preferences. Some guides suggest we resort to awkward and wordy constructions such as he/she and the like. Or, we’re advised to eschew pronouns altogether, repeating proper and common nouns.
There’s another, far more elegant solution when you want a gender-neutral pronoun for…
- A person of unknown gender
- A generic type or class, or
- Where a person defies gender labels, such as Placebo’s Brian Molko
Use they and its inflected forms (i.e., their, them and the like) instead.
The singular they is perfectly acceptable, according to modern usage guides. Some will defend it, explaining that it has been around for centuries in English, including formal writing.
I’ll add that they also sounds a lot better to the ear.