An interesting debate took place among English faculty at the college where I used to teach. We faculty were looking at one of the students’ essays in my Easy Writer software and the following sentence created a stir among us:
“There is just one day in a person’s life when he celebrates with a big wedding.”
We faculty looked at this sentence and each one had a different idea about how to edit it.
One faculty member, me, wanted to keep it as is.
Another suggested the following:
“There is just one day in a person’s life when he or she celebrates with a big wedding.”
Another person suggested this:
“There is just one day in a person’s life when they celebrate with a big wedding.“
Somebody asked whether it was a male or female writing this essay; if it was a female, then the sentence should read as follows:
“There is just one day in a person’s life when she celebrates with a big wedding.“
But in my opinion this is incorrect because it implies that all people are female, and that only women get married!
There has been a debate in English circles about what pronoun reference (he? she? they? he or she?) to use with the noun “a person” or the pronoun “everybody“. Some English teachers will become very upset when the general pronoun “he” is used. Now and then you’ll notice a writer has avoided choosing a gender (the male “he” or the female “she“) by choosing the plural pronoun “they“. But we know that the pronoun must agree in “number” with its noun or pronoun antecedent, and that because “a person” is singular and “everybody” is singular, the plural pronoun “they is incorrect.
I’ve seen some students write “he/she”, which is even worse and you will never find this in professional writing.
Call me sexist, call me conservative, call me old-fashioned, but our language has used “he” as a pronoun reference for “a person” and for “everybody” for ages, and frankly what’s more important to me is how people are treated, not what pronoun reference we use in writing. As long as English used “he” as a general reference and people were not confused about it, I don’t see why we should start becoming confused now!
Besides, now we can argue about which gender, male or female, should be listed first: Should you write “he or she” or “she or he”?
So what should you use when writing? I’m recommending that you use the good old “neutral pronoun “he” in an essay – unless you have a professor who really objects.
And what about our Easy Writer software? Well, it will accept “he or she” and it will also accept “he”. It’s very accepting!