"They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

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"They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby altalt667 » Sat Apr 23, 2011 6:03 pm UTC

Is it?

Old farts don't like it, but its a hundred times better than using "he or she" or "a person" and your not sexist.

It is fun sometimes to use she only because people notice.
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby TaintedDeity » Sat Apr 23, 2011 9:29 pm UTC

Actually, lots of old farts like it and a lot of new farts don't like it.

Otherwise, I agree.
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby eSOANEM » Sun Apr 24, 2011 8:27 am UTC

It's been used for centuries. Similar processes (pronouns changing number) are also well established across the world (take voseo dialects of Spanish for example) and in English (with "you" which was the plural form with thou the singular). I've yet to see a reasonable objection to it so, as far as I'm concerned, it's completely acceptable and, indeed, part of standard British English (I can't speak for American English).
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby SANTARII » Wed Apr 27, 2011 4:06 am UTC

The Protagonize (writing website) section on grammar says that using "they" as a singular gender neutral pronoun is bad English, and the result of feminism.
This very much annoys me.

I think a genderless pronoun is needed. All attempts at creating one have failed. "They" works well enough, people understand it naturally, even if they don't realise it. It does stick out if you use it when someone has already assumed a gender, though I've found simply using it enough means people get used to it.
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby Iulus Cofield » Wed Apr 27, 2011 4:34 am UTC

SANTARII wrote:The Protagonize (writing website) section on grammar says that using "they" as a singular gender neutral pronoun is bad English, and the result of feminism.
This very much annoys me.


It also annoys me when grammar sections are full of inaccuracies and half-truths. I think it really gets Geoff Pullum of Language Log's goat too.

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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby tetromino » Wed Apr 27, 2011 4:41 am UTC

SANTARII wrote:I think a genderless pronoun is needed.

Really? Why?

I would say that people who are concerned about pronoun gender are simply confused: they are mixing up biological/social gender (something that exists in the physical world) and grammatical gender (which is just an abstract grammatical category that happens to be named after the physical world concept). The real problem is that English, unlike most other European languages, doesn't have much in the way of noun gender. A speaker of a language full of grammatical gender distinctions that have nothing to do with the physical world (e.g. where the words for "pen" and "pencil" have different genders and so would be referred to using different pronouns) is less likely than a naïve English speaker to take pronoun gender distinctions literally. But even English has enough meaningless grammatical gender distinctions (e.g. the fact that all ships are referred to as "she") that people ought to be able to realize that the campaign for pronoun gender neutrality is rather silly.

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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby Iulus Cofield » Wed Apr 27, 2011 4:44 am UTC

Gender in English almost always refers to biological/social gender, or at least perceived biological gender. I'm about 70% certain ships, sports cars, expensive-hobby-machines are "she"s as an affectation that's become widespread, rather than a distinctive grammatical feature of English.

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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby xkcdfan » Wed Apr 27, 2011 7:46 am UTC

tetromino wrote:
SANTARII wrote:I think a genderless pronoun is needed.

Really? Why?

Let me just relay that question to the genderqueer and intersex people I'm friends with. I'll get back to you when I have an answer. :roll:

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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby SANTARII » Thu Apr 28, 2011 6:48 am UTC

tetromino wrote:
SANTARII wrote:I think a genderless pronoun is needed.

Really? Why?

I would say that people who are concerned about pronoun gender are simply confused: they are mixing up biological/social gender (something that exists in the physical world) and grammatical gender (which is just an abstract grammatical category that happens to be named after the physical world concept). The real problem is that English, unlike most other European languages, doesn't have much in the way of noun gender. A speaker of a language full of grammatical gender distinctions that have nothing to do with the physical world (e.g. where the words for "pen" and "pencil" have different genders and so would be referred to using different pronouns) is less likely than a naïve English speaker to take pronoun gender distinctions literally. But even English has enough meaningless grammatical gender distinctions (e.g. the fact that all ships are referred to as "she") that people ought to be able to realize that the campaign for pronoun gender neutrality is rather silly.


If someone is referred to as "she" or "he", most people will assume them to be the gender that that specifies.
This is because in English, those pronouns are used for those genders. They are not arbitrary. People do not just use them randomly for anyone.
Now, firstly, it is silly to have gendered pronouns.
Secondly, it causes problems for people who look ambiguous in their gender, it causes problems if you are talking about someone without knowing their gender, and it causes problems for people whose gender is not male or female.
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby Velifer » Thu Apr 28, 2011 12:24 pm UTC

SANTARII wrote:...the result of feminism.

Yeah! You don't hear these FEMINISTS calling out for a genderless singular for cattle! :mrgreen:

People who bitch about things like this should go invent a genderqueer version of Láadan. Seriously, if you're burning your energy on some Strong Whorfianist language insurrection, check your priorities.

Now, if you'll excuse me, this queer is going to go bask in hetero-normative privilege.
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby Moose Hole » Thu Apr 28, 2011 4:27 pm UTC

The guy who invented ground effect lighting legally changed his name to They. I guess that makes it not a pronoun anymore.

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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Apr 28, 2011 5:47 pm UTC

Velifer wrote:Strong Whorfianist
What's strongly Whorfianist about any of this?
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby Velifer » Thu Apr 28, 2011 5:55 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:What's strongly Whorfianist about any of this?

Well, the notion the language determines thought, so without an appropriate pronoun for a genderqueer pansexual who generally prefers male-identified partners except on Thursdays, that persun doesn't exist and zir identity is being denied by the dominant language paradigm and culture. It's an argument I've heard too often (more than never) and too stridently (stridency > 0).
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Apr 28, 2011 6:06 pm UTC

Who's saying language determines thought? The issue remains even if language merely influences thought, which it most certainly does (and which is only weakly Whorfian, almost by definition).

Additionally, while it's stupid to claim that certain languages *prevent* us from having certain thoughts, it's much more obvious that certain languages *require* us to think about certain things. In languages where the grammatical gender of nouns for people corresponds to the perceived social gender of those people, I cannot talk about a person without picking a gender. It's like if no one ever used the words "salesperson" or "parent" or "spouse" or "sibling".

In English, most common nouns luckily don't require this (thanks in part to the push for words like "salesperson", which has been more successful than the push for changing pronoun usage), but pronouns still do: English (formal) grammar requires that I pick a gender when referring to a third person with a singular pronoun. This doesn't mean I can't think of that person as possibly being a different gender (which is what strong Whorfianism would have us believe), but it most certainly means that I had to think of the person as having that gender, and that the listener or reader will also think of the person as having that gender.
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby KestrelLowing » Thu Apr 28, 2011 6:14 pm UTC

As English does not have a governing body, I'm sure that eventually it will be accepted, and I'm happy about that. I know that I already use 'they' in the singular without thinking about it at all. It is part of the English language for me.

I started using 'they' far before I even knew there were people who didn't identify as male or female. I just used it because 'he or she' or 's/he' seemed really awkward and unnatural and the use of 'one' as in 'one may hate the idea of purple broccoli' is overly archaic and snobby sounding.

Of course my English teachers knocked me down for it (and I annoyed them quite a bit when I argued about it) but eventually you're going to find some English teachers who believe in the evolution of language.

As to it being 'feminist', it may have roots there. The way to address someone before when uncertain of gender was to default to 'he', and the s/he was probably a direct result of the feminist movement. I think s/he is an improvement as it shows there is some question of the person's gender - either because they're a hypothetical person or because no one's certain what gender they are.

I'm not so sure 'they' is actually feminist though. It, like 's/he', announces there is some ambiguity, but isn't nearly as unwieldy. I think 'they' came into use because it was just easier, similar to how some words like 'Omnibus' get shorted because it's just easier.

As to how quickly 'they' will be grammatically accepted, I'm not certain. I know it's commonly used around here, so that's a good start.

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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby Giant Speck » Thu Apr 28, 2011 6:17 pm UTC

Let's get rid of pronouns altogether.
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby KestrelLowing » Thu Apr 28, 2011 6:20 pm UTC

Giant Speck wrote:Let's get rid of pronouns altogether.


Eh, would just be really annoying. Know works for some languages, but are based around the fact do not have pronouns. Heck, can't even understand what am writing anymore.

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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby Giant Speck » Thu Apr 28, 2011 6:21 pm UTC

I just realized how ironic my post was.
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Apr 28, 2011 7:13 pm UTC

KestrelLowing wrote:the use of 'one' as in 'one may hate the idea of purple broccoli' is overly archaic and snobby sounding.
And people who understand the history of English know that this is the context in which singular "they" has already existed for centuries: a nonspecific person. What a lot of people (on both sides of the debate) don't get is that this is very different from the use of "they" when we are talking about a specific person but we just don't know their gender.

The first usage has been de facto grammatical for ages, for example in, "If a person wants to succeed, they need to work very hard." The second one is less so, for example in, "If Pat wants to succeed, they need to work very hard." People opposed to singular they often think about the awkwardness of the second when arguing for the incorrectness of the first, while people in favor of singular they often cite the long history of the first when arguing for the correctness of the second.

As to how quickly 'they' will be grammatically accepted, I'm not certain. I know it's commonly used around here, so that's a good start.
Is it really that commonly used in the second manner, though? I still find it awkward to refer to a specific, even named person as "they", and I'm pretty certain I don't see or hear that usage very often. Or at least, not very often relative to how often it's used in the first manner.
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby KestrelLowing » Fri Apr 29, 2011 1:03 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:
KestrelLowing wrote:the use of 'one' as in 'one may hate the idea of purple broccoli' is overly archaic and snobby sounding.
And people who understand the history of English know that this is the context in which singular "they" has already existed for centuries: a nonspecific person. What a lot of people (on both sides of the debate) don't get is that this is very different from the use of "they" when we are talking about a specific person but we just don't know their gender.

The first usage has been de facto grammatical for ages, for example in, "If a person wants to succeed, they need to work very hard." The second one is less so, for example in, "If Pat wants to succeed, they need to work very hard." People opposed to singular they often think about the awkwardness of the second when arguing for the incorrectness of the first, while people in favor of singular they often cite the long history of the first when arguing for the correctness of the second.

As to how quickly 'they' will be grammatically accepted, I'm not certain. I know it's commonly used around here, so that's a good start.
Is it really that commonly used in the second manner, though? I still find it awkward to refer to a specific, even named person as "they", and I'm pretty certain I don't see or hear that usage very often. Or at least, not very often relative to how often it's used in the first manner.


Eh, I think it's pretty common where I am (Midwest for the record).

I've heard something along the lines of "If the engineer wants to keep their job, they need to work harder". In this case, the person talking doesn't actually know who the engineer is, but it is a specific person, so they use 'they' instead of 'he or she' or just 'he'.

"If Taylor wants to succeed, they need to work very hard" would possibly be said if someone doesn't actually know who Taylor is as Taylor is a gender neutral name. (Although usually it would go down something like this: "If Taylor wants to succeed, he... or wait, maybe she? eh. they need to work very hard.")

Basically, I've heard it used, but sometimes it's only because people get caught up in "Should I use he or she? Heck. We'll go with they".

I've also used 'they' in conversations when trying to figure out the gender of someone. :oops:

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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby eSOANEM » Fri Apr 29, 2011 4:14 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote: "If Pat wants to succeed, they need to work very hard."


I see (well, hear actually) that usage very rarely and it sounds a bit odd. The only times I can see it being used is if it's really "If "Pat" wants to succeed, they need to work very hard." and "Pat" is just a name they've given to a hypothetical person or, if the person isn't sure of Pat's gender although, in that case, as Kestrel says, I'd more usually hear "I Pat wants to succeed, he... or she? Whatever, they need to work very hard."
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby TheGrammarBolshevik » Sat Apr 30, 2011 12:41 pm UTC

gmalivuk wrote:Who's saying language determines thought? The issue remains even if language merely influences thought, which it most certainly does (and which is only weakly Whorfian, almost by definition).

Additionally, while it's stupid to claim that certain languages *prevent* us from having certain thoughts, it's much more obvious that certain languages *require* us to think about certain things. In languages where the grammatical gender of nouns for people corresponds to the perceived social gender of those people, I cannot talk about a person without picking a gender. It's like if no one ever used the words "salesperson" or "parent" or "spouse" or "sibling".

In English, most common nouns luckily don't require this (thanks in part to the push for words like "salesperson", which has been more successful than the push for changing pronoun usage), but pronouns still do: English (formal) grammar requires that I pick a gender when referring to a third person with a singular pronoun. This doesn't mean I can't think of that person as possibly being a different gender (which is what strong Whorfianism would have us believe), but it most certainly means that I had to think of the person as having that gender, and that the listener or reader will also think of the person as having that gender.

If you had a properly reductionist understanding of psychology, you'd realize that this attempt to change my opinion with words is futile.
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby SANTARII » Tue May 03, 2011 9:33 am UTC

The usage of 'they' as a singular pronoun has been used for centuries. Using it when the gender of a specific person is not known, has not. However, it has slipped into usage, and I see no reason to correct it, in fact I encourage it.
I sometimes even use 'they' for people I KNOW the gender of (and they are male or female), other people I know do this too, it is just automatic a lot of the time, and is usually understood, even if sometimes it stands out.
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby Velifer » Thu May 05, 2011 6:09 pm UTC

TheGrammarBolshevik wrote:
gmalivuk wrote:Who's saying language determines thought?

If you had a properly reductionist understanding of psychology

Then you'd have a field day with this post.
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby gmalivuk » Thu May 05, 2011 6:16 pm UTC

What in that post would a reductionist have a field day with?
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby Velifer » Thu May 05, 2011 7:34 pm UTC

You're probably right, a biological reductionist would likely just write it off and prescribe drugs.
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby TheGrammarBolshevik » Thu May 05, 2011 7:38 pm UTC

Seriously, nobody has any idea what you're talking about.
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby gmalivuk » Fri May 06, 2011 4:20 am UTC

Probably it's all those drugs Velifer got from some biological reductionist.
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby The Mighty Thesaurus » Fri May 06, 2011 5:27 am UTC

They're notorious for it.
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby TheGrammarBolshevik » Fri May 06, 2011 1:22 pm UTC

I probably misused "reductionist" there. I just meant it in the sense that Velifer reduced (and broadened) the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis to "Words influence thought." Which is obviously true, for some values of "influenced."
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby GrueTodayBleenTomorrow » Sun Jul 17, 2011 11:18 pm UTC

I'd like to throw a second vote for using 'she' as the pronoun for arbitrary persons (like, "The defender of position X might argue that Y, but Y could only be true if she were already committed to Z.").

I like the singular 'they' for real persons of unknown gender. I was unaware there was any debate left over it..
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby TaintedDeity » Mon Jul 18, 2011 2:18 am UTC

GrueTodayBleenTomorrow wrote:I'd like to throw a second vote for using 'she' as the pronoun for arbitrary persons (like, "The defender of position X might argue that Y, but Y could only be true if she were already committed to Z.").
Why?
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby TheGrammarBolshevik » Mon Jul 18, 2011 2:24 am UTC

Satisfies people who read "they" as plural while still decentering the male default.
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby Iulus Cofield » Mon Jul 18, 2011 2:43 am UTC

The leftover masculine default. Not male.

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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby TheGrammarBolshevik » Mon Jul 18, 2011 2:52 am UTC

It doesn't decenter the male default?
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby Iulus Cofield » Mon Jul 18, 2011 3:42 am UTC

It's not male. It's masculine and it's a leftover from previous incarnations of English, analogous to "went". Do people even use masculine as a default anymore? I think I only ever see that in books from the early 20th century or prior.

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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby TheGrammarBolshevik » Mon Jul 18, 2011 3:45 am UTC

Iulus Cofield wrote:It's not male.

Says you. But in every other case in English, a masculine pronoun indicates that its antecedent is male (to the extent that language follows the gender binary), and many people, clearly, read this connotation in the universal "he."
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby GrueTodayBleenTomorrow » Mon Jul 18, 2011 4:41 pm UTC

TaintedDeity wrote:
GrueTodayBleenTomorrow wrote:I'd like to throw a second vote for using 'she' as the pronoun for arbitrary persons (like, "The defender of position X might argue that Y, but Y could only be true if she were already committed to Z.").
Why?


Short answer: 'She' avoids any grammatical awkwardness that sometimes arises when using the singular 'they'. So, grammatically, it's in the same position as 'he', but minus the sexism.

Long answer: If given the choice between 'he' or 'she' for an arbitrary or hypothetical person, why not 'she'? Neither is more accurate with respect to the facts (there are no pre-existing facts about the genders of people I make up). To use 'he' you risk unintentionally perpetuating certain subtly sexist notions (like the idea that being a man is the standard, so it doesn't count as "extra" information if the subject of your hypothetical is male, while being a woman is a deviation from the norm, so using 'she' to refer to your hypothetical person means your postulating something extra about her that you didn't need to).

Using 'she' does not carry the corresponding risk in the other direction, because there are no culturally rooted prejudices that using 'she' would feed in to. Our society only has a widespread practice of universalizing the male experience over the female, not the other way around. Your reader may notice if you use 'she' when she wouldn't have noticed had you used 'he'. This doesn't make 'she' distracting, it means that it can make your reader think about things she may have not examined critically before. The hope is that her thought process (if she hasn't encountered/considered the practice before) will go something like this: "That's odd. Why use 'she' for a made up person when the gender doesn't matter?" "Wait a minute? Why use 'he' for a made up person when the gender doesn't matter?!" "Has my whole life been a lie?" "As soon as I finish reading this amazing article, I'm going to go out and smash some Patriarchy!"
“Either the wave function, as given by the Schrödinger equation, is not everything, or it is not right” ~ J.S. Bell

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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby eSOANEM » Mon Jul 18, 2011 4:51 pm UTC

GrueTodayBleenTomorrow wrote:it's in the same position as 'he', but minus the sexism.


"She" is just as sexist an option as "he" (which is to say, actually not very), it's just that the sexism it expresses is contrary to that most common in society. So-called positive discrimination (which this is very similar to) is in fact no different from any other discrimination as, in order to give extra to one party, you must give less to another.
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Re: "They" as a singular/genderless pronoun

Postby GrueTodayBleenTomorrow » Mon Jul 18, 2011 5:23 pm UTC

eSOANEM wrote:"She" is just as sexist an option as "he" (which is to say, actually not very), it's just that the sexism it expresses is contrary to that most common in society. So-called positive discrimination (which this is very similar to) is in fact no different from any other discrimination as, in order to give extra to one party, you must give less to another.


You misunderstand. I'm not saying "Since using 'he' universalizes male experience and ignores female experience, to be un-sexist we should use 'she' because 'she' universalizes female experience while ignoring the male! woohoo!" That would be silly.

What is sexist about the widespread use of 'he' for arbitrary persons is that it equates male experience with human experience, and it is so common that we sometimes don't even notice how odd this practice is even when we encounter it firsthand. The use of 'she' does not have that problem, precisely because we live in a sexist society and in a linguistic community with widespread use of 'he'. The intentional use of 'she' is not meant to universalize female experience. Rather, it is meant to serve as a sort of commentary on the more common practice of using 'he'.

Using 'she' does not give "extra" to women, and it isn't a form of "discrimination" against men. The reason is that the practice of using a gendered pronoun for an arbitrary person is only discriminatory if the use of that pronoun goes widely unnoticed and is implicitly accepted. This is exactly what won't happen when you use 'she'. Your reader will notice it, because we are trained to see femaleness as other (even if we, ourselves, are female). The very point of using 'she' is that your reader will notice it, and noticing it means thinking about it. The sexist and discriminatory power of the arbitrary 'he' is that we don't think about it, we just accept it. Hopefully, the more we can make people think about this stuff, the more positive changes (that is, positive for everybody, because sexism is bad for everybody) will be made in our thoroughly messed up world.
“Either the wave function, as given by the Schrödinger equation, is not everything, or it is not right” ~ J.S. Bell


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