Pronoun Policy

Forking off this thread from a discussion on diversity on the governance teams, since it is something people want to talk about but is not directly related to that topic.

I really feel like the discussion can be entirely avoided (like styleguides in general) if they are written down somewhere as a ruleset and then followed consistently. Otherwise every single PR has the chance to devolve into a painful flamewar that costs nerves and time.

I’m neutral on whatever policy ends up there, but I really think it needs a policy for all our sanity.


I’d say, singular “they” is probably a reasonable default.


The policy has always been to avoid gender in the first place, but if you need a singular pronoun, use ‘they’.


I think ‘he or she’ is much more sensible than ‘they’, which isn’t a singular pronoun.

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‘They’ is now very widely accepted as a singular pronoun. Fighting it is a lost battle, and not one that needs any repeating here.

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The problem with “he or she” is that this whole debate was started over gender and if we want to have the most inclusive pronoun to refer to gender so that everyone feels included, (including people that identify as neither “he or she”), then using the singular ‘they’ seems like the most reasonable option.

EDIT: If you type “define they” into Google one definition that you’ll get is “used to refer to a person of unspecified sex.”, which is exactly what we’re aiming for here.

I'm not a member of this community seeing as I've barely used Rust, but...

It's not quite that simple (from Wiki, bolding by me):

In the 14th edition (1993) of The Chicago Manual of Style, the University of Chicago Press explicitly recommended use of singular use of they and their, noting a "revival" of this usage and citing "its venerable use by such writers as Addison, Austen, Chesterfield, Fielding, Ruskin, Scott, and Shakespeare."[87] From the 15th edition, this was changed. In Chapter 5 of the 16th edition, now written by Bryan A. Garner, the recommendations are: "The singular they. A singular antecedent requires a singular referent pronoun. Because he is no longer accepted as a generic pronoun referring to a person of either sex, it has become common in speech and in informal writing to substitute the third-person plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves, and the nonstandard singular themself. While this usage is accepted in casual context, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing."[88] and "Gender bias. . . . On the one hand, it is unacceptable to a great many reasonable readers to use the generic masculine pronoun (he in reference to no one in particular). On the other hand, it is unacceptable to a great many readers (often different readers) either to resort to non-traditional gimmicks to avoid the generic masculine (by using he/she of s/he, for example) or to use they as a kind of singular pronoun. Either way, credibility is lost with some readers."[79]

To me that reads more like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

The OED seems to come down on the side of "they" (though I can't find an official document)

it’s the policy of current English Oxford Dictionaries to use plural pronouns and determiners such as they and their in definitions in cases where, formerly, singular forms such as he and his would have been selected.


Although also very common, the use of they after a singular noun is still anathema to many people, especially in formal contexts.

IMO it's better to be ungrammatical than potentially offensive, even in formal contexts like the Rust docs. But I'm a descriptivist so... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

PS. you would write "The person you mentioned, are they coming to dinner with us tonight?". There's no ambiguity in this case because there's one subject, and it's singular.


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One thing to remember is that not everybody is a native english speaker. If it’s possible to avoid the use of pronouns to begin with sentences are much less confusing for such readers.


I’m of the opinion that they & she are both good choices for referring to a person of indeterminate gender, but that only they is a good pronoun for referring to an arbitrary member of a group of people with multiple known genders (e.g. a member of the core team). This leads me to prefer singular they as a universal style guideline so as to be consistent between the two use cases. I’m also of the opinion that avoiding pronouns for unspecified persons is a good choice when it doesn’t contort writing.


As a native speaker of American English, I can say for sure that the following sentence is something that would be very natural and understandable to me. I am certain I have myself uttered something very similar to it on many occasions.

"The person you mentioned, are they coming to dinner with us?"

I of course recognize that not everyone speaks English as their native language, so I welcome non-native speakers to let me know if they would find this sentence construction difficult to understand or confusing.

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Singular ‘they’ is so prevalent now that to oppose its use as being ungrammatical is to deny the fact that languages evolve over time.

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Indeed; the English pronoun you also evolved from a plural pronoun to a combined plural/singular one, which is why it also takes “plural” verb forms even when used in the singular (“you are” / “they are”).

“It’s clearly plural. Would you write “The person your mentioned, is they coming to dinner with us tonight?” Of course not.”

FWIW, you wouldn’t write “is they” because “they” is grammatically plural and thus requires a plural verb to agree with. That doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes semantically singular. There are other instances of this (e.g., Latin tenebrae “darkness” is grammatically plural but semantically singular; people say things like “these scissors are …” in reference to exactly one implement) and instances of the reverse (e.g. “everyone” is grammatically singular but semantically plural). (For another case where homonymous grammatical and semantic concepts come apart, consider that the German formal “Sie” is semantically a second-person singular but grammatically a third-person plural.)


… “pants” is also semantically singular but grammatically plural.


As well as the other, extremely valid, points made elsewhere in this thread, “he or she” does not cover non-binary gender identities and so doesn’t even solve the problem that it was designed to.

I answer as a non-native english speaker. I think I never came across a use of “they” as singular, and I certainly would re-read a sentence using this form, thinking I missed something. Now, this would certainly be true only the first time I see it, later on I would have understood its usage.

I once read a book that was usin “he” and “she” (actually “il” and “elle” in french) alternatively for each example the author gave. I didn’t find it disturbing, actually.


For the record, I am not a native speaker either and I’m not only used to singular they, I find myself subconsciously using it frequently.

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Just as a small something to add, it’s actually not even a matter of “now.” They has been used as a singular pronoun since the 14th century. The recommendation to use “he” over “they” only started in the mid-18th century.

Anyway, I support consistently using only they to refer to a person of indeterminate gender. I don’t accept the argument at all that using she somehow works to correct longstanding gender bias (as presented in the PR that spawned all of this).