Epicene or Obscene?

The concept of gender identity is an ever-evolving concept in practice, but not as efficiently in writing. Specifically, English speakers use traditional binaries in a way that is unintentionally exclusionary to gender non-conforming individuals. Limiting acceptable singular, gender-neutral pronouns, known as “epicenes”, only to she or he assumes that people are not capable of having flexible or non-traditional identities. Since there are many different identities for people to use, it would make sense for the language these individuals speak to represent them in the same way. We already use he, she, and sometimes they as epicenes informally, but maybe it is time to consider a more serious transition. The following articles explore different perceptions on the debate over whether it is more appropriate to be sensitive to gender identity or to adhere to longstanding, traditional grammar rules.

1. “Gender Inclusivity or ‘Grammar Rules OK’? Linguistic Prescriptivism vs Linguistic Discrimination in the Classroom.”

This article discusses the debate over which singular pronoun can replace the previously widely accepted he as a generic, non-gendered pronoun. According to feminist or non-sexist language ideals, using the term he as the generic pronoun is unfitting for our rapidly changing society (Pauwels and Winter 128). The words she and he as alternative general pronouns are the most hotly debated. She is used as a generic pronoun as it “elevates a feminine gender pronoun to the status” of the historically accepted masculine pronoun (Pauwels and Winter 128). Although the option was intended with feminist ideals in mind, using she has not been favorable with “linguistic purists and prescriptivists”, nor has it been nearly as widely used as he (Pauwels and Winter 129).  Still, she is less offensive to those concerned with the preservation of traditional grammar rules than using they, because using they as an epicene is technically incorrect in terms of pronoun-antecedent agreement. Though it is paramount to consider preferred gender identity in these situations, there are more detriments to using they than just breaking traditional grammar rules.  As linguistic scholar Maciej Baranowski explains, it may also be difficult to understand the context of the text if they is used instead of something inherently singular.

2. “Current Usage of the Epicene Pronoun in Written English.”

Baranowski affirms feminists’ distaste for using he as the generic singular pronoun, and addresses the difficulty with motioning to accept they as a valid alternative. Part of why they is unpopular can be linked back to an experiment done by Donald MacKay in 1980. MacKay replaced all instances of he as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun with they in a series of texts and evaluated the differences in the two variations (Baranowski 379). He found that there were some benefits, but also some very clear drawbacks: “ambiguity, loss of precision, distancing and dehumanizing connotations, and possible disruption for the plural dimension in English” (Baranowski 380). These drawbacks listed were considered to outweigh any potential benefits, so the usage of they was further condemned.

Though MacKay’s conclusions seem adamant, many social scientists vehemently disagree with him. They even predict that they will soon come to be accepted as a part of formal English (Baranowski 382). By exploring numerous experiments over the last few decades, Baranowski has been able to determine that they is becoming more commonplace in both formal and informal language. In this article, he compares his research to his own project to “study the occurrence of the alternative forms of the English epicene pronoun” between American and British writers (Baranowski 382). Baranowski asserts that we have returned to a place where all three discussed pronouns – he, she, and they – have an equal place of prominence in societal usage. He furthers his point to argue that they is becoming a more dominant preference, but it depends on cultural context (Baranowski 382). Baranowski finds that it is actually British writers who are more likely to use the singular they than American writers, which is what he considers the most unique aspect of this study. All in all, there is significant reason to believe that they is once again becoming accepted.

3. “Singular ‘They’”

According to section 5.256 of the 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, they is an accepted gender-neutral singular pronoun in the informal sense. The manual denounces variations such as sh/e or (wo)man as “clumsy” (“Singular ‘They’”). They is not yet officially recognized as acceptable in formal writing, but it is acknowledged as an alternative that is gaining popularity. The manual addresses grammar versus consideration for gender ambiguity as follows: “some people identify not with a gender-specific pronoun but instead with the pronoun they and its forms or some other gender-neutral singular pronoun; any such preference should generally be respected” (“Singular ‘They’”). In terms of grammatical correctness, the manual suggests to be wary of using they as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun in formal settings. However, when it comes to using they/them/their as someone’s preferred pronoun, the manual urges writers to adhere to an individual’s preference as a means of showing respect.

4. “2015 Word of the Year”

The American Dialect Society named they as the 2015 Word of the Year for being a singular pronoun. It has been societally recognized as a means of referring to a person who does not conform to traditional gender binary standards. They is championed for having been in the English language with this function as early on as with the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen (American Dialect Society). Bill Walsh of the Washington Post is cited as saying that they “is the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun” (American Dialect Society). According to the article, people have been proposing new types of words to stand in as the epicene, but “they has the advantage of already being part of the language” according to New Words Committee’s Ben Zimmer.

The American Dialect Society has been in existence for 127 years and its members include linguists, lexicographers, etymologists, grammarians, historians, researchers, writers, editors, students, and independent scholars (American Dialect Society). These individuals have had numerous discussions and done countless amounts of research in order to determine whether or not words are relevant enough in society to be deemed a part of the language. Since it is such an accredited and longstanding institution, it is a substantial source for writing tutors to gain insight about the validity of using they as a stand in for the exclusive he/she binary.

5. “Gendered Pronouns & Singular ‘They’”

The Purdue OWL goes even further in explaining the different reasons one may wish to use they as a singular pronoun. It recognizes that there is no gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun in the English language, and establishes that they is both popular and more officially recognized as an appropriate substitute. The OWL champions that using they is “important for people whose genders are neither male nor female”, addressing the importance of respecting gender identity in written and oral language (Berry et. al). The authors take great care in clarifying that using they is more than just an issue of grammatical correctness; it is an issue of gender inclusivity. The authors make references to other publications championing the use of they or other epicenes such as  “zie/zim/zir and sie/sie/hir”, even linking to a more extensive list featured on The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s LGBT Center’s website (Berry et. al). There is even an argument made that using they is not incorrect at all.

Frequent misconceptions and questions are addressed at the bottom of the article. The authors answer “Isn’t this incorrect grammar?” with first a simple “no”, and then an expanded response about how language and grammar are fluid beasts changing over time to adapt to our ever-changing society (Berry et. al). The authors also address the question “Is this just a trend?” with another “no”, referencing that gender neutral pronouns have been around for a while, give that  “[t]he Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for a gender-neutral, indefinite they is from about 1375 from the romance of William of Palerne” (Berry et. al). One final note to confirm how seriously the Purdue OWL’s contributors feel about gender inclusivity in language is that the end of the article features links to further one’s education about the concept. Clearly, this online writing lab is in stark support for they as an acceptable epicene.

6. “They”

Finally, the Merriam-Webster dictionary champions two important definitions for the word they. The first refers to the traditional usage of the word and is as follows: “used as third person pronoun serving as the plural of he, she, or it or referring to a group of two or more individuals not all of the same sex” (Merriam-Webster). The second allows us to use they as a gender neutral singular pronoun. It defines they by saying it is “often used with an indefinite third person singular antecedent” and provides this example from a New York Times article: “nobody has to go to school if they don’t want to” (Merriam-Webster). By providing a New York Times example, the ethos of the usage is enhanced further, because an editor of such an esteemed publication would not have allowed such a usage were it no inherently intentional by all involved parties.


As evident, many scholars agree that using they to honor a person’s preferred pronouns and allow for gender ambiguity is imperative in the usage of the  English language. However, it is not unanimously agreed upon, so there is still room for contrasting opinions. Overall, scholars are imploring writers to be respectful of non-binary individuals when writing, so that seems to be of utmost priority. In reference to liberal arts-type writing, it is safe to say that using they will not be contested, and will even be appreciated over he or she. Where there is still some uncertainty seems to be in regard to more scientific writing, some more STEM-brained individuals may be writing without much regard to gender identity as the material they write about tends to be about mathematical or scientific topics. In terms of the liberal arts, our topics tend to be more humanistic and sociological, so it makes sense to have concerns over gender inclusivity. Overall, it is important to remember that language exists to represent the people who use it. Using singular gender-neutral pronouns as a means of gender inclusivity is just one of the many new directions that the English language is moving in.

Works Cited

“2015 Word of the Year.” American Dialect Association, n.d., 8 Jan. 2016, Washington D.C.

Baranowski, Maciej. “Current usage of the epicene pronoun in written English.” Journal of Sociolinguistics, vol. 6, no. 3, 2002, pp. 378-397. Blackwell Publishers Ltd, University of Pennsylvania.

Berry, Chris, et. al.. “Gendered Pronouns & Singular “They.” The Purdue OWL, Purdue U Writing Lab, Last edited date. 2 Nov. 2017.

Pauwels, Anne, and Joanne Winter. “Gender Inclusivity or ‘Grammar Rules OK’? Linguistic Prescriptivism vs Linguistic Discrimination in the Classroom.” Language and Education, vol. 20, no. 2, 22 Dec. 2008, pp. 127–140. Taylor and Francis Group, Routledge.

“Singular ‘they’.” The Chicago Manual of Style Online. The Chicago Manual of Style, n.d. Web 18 April 2018.

“They.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2018.