One of the big strategies I encourage my students to use on the SAT Writing/ACT English sections is sounding out the possible answer choices. When it comes to grammar, wrong answers tend to “sound” wrong, and it is oftentimes easier to identify these problems when saying them in your head as opposed to simply reading them on a page. There are of course rules and strategies specific to each type of question (semicolons, apostrophes, verb tense, transitions, etc) but when all else fails, sounding out answer choices can be a good way to attack a question.
Today, I want to go over a big exception to this rule: questions where “he or she” is the correct answer. I don’t mean the answer is either “he” or “she.” I mean the correct answer actually reads “he or she.”
In my own experience, this might be the only time where the answer that sounds right to me (usually “they”) is actually NOT the correct answer, and therefore this is a good rule to know.
Let me give you an example of a sentence in which “he or she” is appropriate.
If a student wants to become a doctor, he or she must take take several biology classes.
A big concept I teach with pronoun questions is finding the noun or nouns the pronoun refers to. If the noun is singular, you need a singular pronoun (like it) while plural nouns require plural pronouns (like they).
Look at the sentence above. What noun(s) does he or she refer to? A student, right? Not students. Just a single, solitary student. Therefore, we need a singular pronoun to refer to that student. Now obviously we don’t use the “it” while referencing people, and because we don’t know the gender of the student, we can’t just pick one.
Therefore, the rule is, when you are referring to one person and you don’t know the gender of that person, you use he or she.
One more related example.
If a student wants to become an architect, he or she must take his or her math classes seriously.
Same principle with possessive pronouns. One person, don’t know the gender, use his or her.
Now, if you’re like me, you would probably say “they” or “their” in normal conversation, and this would likely sound right to you when reading the above sentences out loud. However, “they” or “their” would NOT be correct in these instances, and this is why I consider this a big and good-to-know exception to the “sounding it out strategy.”