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The Singular ‘They:’ Thoughts and Examples on a Surprisingly Obstinate Logomachy.

Karen Toomasian

Presented below is an essay by Threads team member and poet Lang DeLancey. The author would like to stress the point made later in the essay that, regardless of what pedants say, it is most important, and correct, to refer to people how they want to be referred to.

        People seem to get themselves in a certified tizzy about the use of ‘they’ as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun. The argument tends to be some variation on the idea that ‘they’ can never be treated as singular in the English language. This is a matter that I assumed had been handled by the elementary English teachers of the world, but it clearly didn’t stick with some students. Here, I am attempting to fill in the gaps that folks may have forgotten.

        First, it’s only fair that I make my position on the matter absolutely clear. The use of ‘they’ as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun is, and always has been, acceptable in English. I will attempt to give background and historical examples to support this claim. I should mention that I am not a trained grammarian; I am simply a raging pedant. Also, it is worth noting that I will be simplifying the discussion here to talk about ‘they’ being used to denote a singular antecedent. There are many more very interesting and technical layers to this argument that I don’t have the time, training, or wherewithal to dive into here.

        Pronouns are the things we, as English speakers, use to refer to people or things without repeating their names. If we are talking about a male-identifying person, we use ‘he.’ If we are talking about a female-identifying person, we use ‘she.’ If we are talking about a group of people, regardless of gender we use ‘they.’ However, our system has a problem that has sparked many a grammatical argument: the lack of a universally agreed upon gender-neutral, third person singular pronoun. This means that we don’t have a unique way to refer to people that don’t identify with the male-female gender binary, or who don’t identify with any gender. A solution that has been used and discussed recently is using ‘they’ as a singular gender-neutral pronoun.

        The singular ‘they’ has been around since the 14th century (although that was back when English looked like “Eche on in þer craft ys wijs.” And unless you are the nerdiest of nerds you may not even be able to spot the ‘their’ in that sentence from the Wycliffite bible). Here, ‘they’ is being used as a singular pronoun to denote that the gender of the subject of the sentence is unknown or unimportant to the rest of the sentence (see the example: A teacher can make a big difference in the lives of their students). In fact, the singular ‘they’ hung around in English basically unchallenged until the 18th century when certain prescriptive grammarians began to suggest that ‘he’ should be the generic pronoun. Interestingly enough, the first recorded example of this recommendation was by a woman named Ann Fisher in her book A New Grammar.

        Unfortunately, this ‘he’-based view of (hardly) gender-neutral pronouns has persisted, even up to more recent times. In 1979, for example, Strunk and White, in their oft-cited book The Elements of Style, remarked, “He has lost all suggestion of maleness in these circumstances. ... It has no pejorative connotation; it is never incorrect.” It is thankful that this idea that it is “never incorrect” to refer to a person as ‘he’ has quickly fallen out of fashion. However, the (hardly) neutral ‘he’ has been replaced with ‘he or she’ or ‘his or her’ by opponents of the singular ‘they.’ This is undoubtedly better than simply using ‘he,’ but, as astute readers may have already noticed, it fails to take people who don’t identify as ‘he or she’ into account. The singular ‘they’ solves this problem.

        While it is true that the singular ‘they’ has more commonly been used in conversational English than written English, and conversation has been hard to reliably track before the advent of recording, we are presented with a plethora of written examples of the singular ‘they’ from some of English’s heaviest of hitters. I assure you, there are more.

“There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me

As if I were their well-acquainted friend” – William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors (1594).

“Every one must judge according to their own feelings.” – Lord Byron, Werner (1823)

“Had the Doctor been contented to take my dining tables as any body in their senses would have done …” - Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814)

“Now leaden slumber with life's strength doth fight;

And every one to rest themselves betake,

Save thieves, and cares, and troubled minds, that wake.” – William Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece (1594).

“So likewise shall my heavenly Father doe also unto you, if yee from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.” – King James Bible (Matthew 18:35)

        With this sampling of examples of singular ‘they,’ it is worth noting that contemporary discussions surrounding the use of ‘they’ as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun are generally tied to the idea of using ‘they’ to denote people who don’t conform to the gender binary. This is slightly different from some of the above examples where ‘they’ is used (as mentioned earlier) when the gender of the subject is unknown/non-essential to the sentence*. These differences in usage between the modern and the historical examples that I have provided may or may not be important to you, depending on your level of pedantry. Even if you are extremely particular, however, you will accept that the examples and discussion above provide evidence that the use of the singular ‘they’, for whatever purpose, has been established in English for at least several centuries, and that a person that attempts to argue that its use is grammatically incorrect, improper, or without precedence, might do best to consult their own bookshelf.

        For some context, here are some entities/ organizations/ important word people that support the use of the singular, gender-neutral ‘they’:

The Chicago Manual of Style (editions 14-16)

Merriam-Webster

The Associated Press Style Book

The Washington Post Style Guide

And at least several more

 

*Obviously, people who don’t identify with the gender binary have always existed and they have been referred to in various ways throughout the history of the English language. The modern repurposing of the singular ‘they’ is the most recent, and so far least dehumanizing (see use of ‘it’ in English legal documents from centuries past) way to refer to gender-queer people. Ultimately, it is most important to remember to call people what they want to be called, regardless of what pedants on the internet, or around the dinner table, say.

 

POST SCRIPT: In answer to your next question, when you use ‘they’ as a singular, gender-neutral subject you should use a plural verb, like ‘are’ instead of ‘is.’ The reasons for this are even more pedantic and finicky than I want to get into here (in an article about pedantic and finicky things). If a person you are talking to takes offence to this on the basis of grammar, gently remind them that ‘you’ used to only be the second-person plural, the singular was ‘thee,’ ‘thou,’ or ‘thy.’ Watch carefully to see if the person arguing against a singular ‘they are’ uses the historically incorrect, but clearly acceptable, ‘you are’ in the singular.

 

(RE)SOURCES

Videos

- https://www.merriam-webster.com/video/the-awkward-case-of-his-or-her

Articles/Editorials/Books

- Fisher, Ann (1750) [1745]. A New Grammar (reprinted in facsimile) (2nd ed.). Newcastle upon Tyne: R.C. Alston (published 1974).

-Strunk, William; White, E.E.B. (1979). The Elements of Style (3rd ed.). Allyn & Bacon. ISBN 978-0-205-19158-1.

- https://www.grammarly.com/blog/the-singular-they/

- https://www.npr.org/2016/01/13/462906419/everyone-uses-singular-they-whether-they-realize-it-or-not

- https://www.visualthesaurus.com/cm/dictionary/dos-and-donts-for-singular-they/

- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they (the citations list at the bottom of this page is also great)

- https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/singular-nonbinary-they