Blog Post

Long live the singular they

I’m currently enjoying Steven Pinker’s excellent 2014 book ‘The sense of style: The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century’. But there’s something about Pinker’s writing style that’s a great irritation to my Australian sense of style.

In each chapter, Pinker alternates the gender of his imagined readers and writers.

Early in the book, Pinker provides this explanation: ‘To avoid the awkwardness of strings of he or she, I have borrowed a convention from linguistics and will consistently refer to a generic writer of one sex and a generic reader of the other. The male gender won the coin toss, and will represent the writer in this chapter; the roles will alternate in subsequent ones’.

So Pinker writes: ‘The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself.’

So confusing! As a reader, I’m expected to remember that ‘he’ means writer in this chapter, but in the next chapter will mean ‘reader’!

As I read, I’m constantly reminded of gender and the difficulties it’s causing Pinker. The result is that I notice gender much more than I should: it’s an intrusion on my understanding of the content. When readers and writers appear in the same sentence, I’m simply confused.

Wouldn’t it be easier to use the singular ‘they’ throughout the book, and to use the terms ‘reader’ and ‘writer’ when needed? I would find it much easier to read: ‘The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and the writer orients the reader’s gaze so that they can see it for themself.

Yes, it breaks the rule of agreement. But it’s how we speak, it’s easy to use, and it doesn’t draw attention to itself. Long live the singular they!