Apr 30, 2012

Grammar Hammer: ‘He/She’ or ‘They’ Celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

You know that Cinco de Mayo is not actually Mexico’s Independence Day, of course. Because you’re a literate professional (why else would you be reading this column?), you know it commemorates the day in 1862, when, against all odds, the Mexican army won the Battle of Puebla. They pounded their French colonizers that day and have been celebrating it ever since.

Cinco de Mayo means “fifth of May” in Spanish, and in the U.S. and Mexico, the day is something like St. Patrick’s Day, Chinese New Year or Oktoberfest — an excuse to remember old customs, consume native alcohol, don your grandparent’s costumes, listen to traditional music and — naturally — PARTY!

But like many holidays, some people (not you and me, of course) might overdo it. If you go out with a friend for Cinco de Mayo this year, keep in mind that they might need you to tell them to slow down when throwing back tequila shots and scarfing up burritos. Or is it he or she might need you to tell them to slow down?

The question illustrates a commonly confused rule of grammar which governs when to use “he/she” vs. “they” (or “him/her” vs. “them”). For example:

  • If your friend wants a spicy taco, ? should get extra habenero salsa.

Because “friend” is singular, use a singular pronoun: “he” or “she.” But since we don’t know your friend’s gender, those traditionalists might tell you to use the “he/she” combination instead of just “he.” In the past, “he” would have been suitable to refer to “your friend” regardless of his or her gender, but nowadays that’s considered sexist and outdated.

  • If your friends want spicy tacos, ? should get extra habenero salsa.

This time, you’re safe. The subject is plural (“friends”) so the pronoun should also be plural: “they.”

Now here’s where it gets tricky: Although it’s technically correct to use “his/her” for singular subjects, sometimes it just doesn’t sound good. For example:

  • If your friend wants a spicy taco, he or she should get extra habenero salsa, but then he or she will probably need a lot of cerveza. And if he or she starts to get red in the face, call an ambulance!

See what I mean? It sounds awkward to keep repeating “he or she.” In this case, go with your gut and use “they” instead.

  • If your friend wants a spicy taco, they should get extra habenero salsa, but then they will probably need a lot of cerveza. And if they start to get red in the face, call an ambulance!

Stylistically, this version sounds more natural and is easier to read and comprehend. So why wouldn’t you just always default to “they” and avoid this confusing rule altogether? It’s a matter of style. There are circumstances where maybe you want to imply that both sexes are welcome:

  • Your child is invited to my Cinco de Mayo party. Will he or she bring a swim suit?

By adding the “he/she” in this case, the speaker is: 1) being polite by not assuming the child is a boy, and 2) could also be indirectly asking the parent if they have a son or daughter.

So that’s why it’s important to still understand the rule, even if you don’t always abide by it. Rules are only sometimes meant to be broken. For example, you would not want to say this:

  • Your children are invited to my Cinco de Mayo party. Will he or she bring a swim suit?

This is more than bending the rules — it’s totally incorrect. “Children” is a plural subject, and therefore could never be referred to as the singular pronouns “he” or “she.” In this case, it should only be:

  • Your children are invited to my Cinco de Mayo party. Will they bring swim suits?

Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Grammar Hammer is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

Image courtesy of Flickr user dbking.

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