The singular ‘they’ gains increased acceptance


There is an awkward, long-standing, and frequently occurring problem of how to refer in the third person to someone whose gender is unknown. The use of ‘he or she’ or ‘him or her’ is the traditional option but as anyone will attest, this is cumbersome and inelegant for both the writer and the reader. It also does not address the question of people whose gender identification does not fit into the binary category.

The singular ‘they’ has been the solution that seems to have caught on and now it has been voted ‘Word of the Year’ by 200 linguists at the American Dialect Society’s annual meeting. This usage of the word had already made into some style guides such as at the Washington Post.

An example: “Everyone wants their cat to succeed.”

Earlier, the so-called proper way to say it would have been, “Everyone wants his or her cat to succeed.”

The Post’s style guide ratified this usage last month, which caused some grammar pedants to shriek. But as Post copy editor Bill Walsh explained, the singular they is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

I like this and had adopted this practice some time ago. It was difficult at first because this use stuck in my craw but now I do it almost without thinking and it seems natural. But at a meeting where this was discussed, some of my university colleagues claimed that they were still resisting.

However, as with most things, context is everything. There are situations where it does not sound quite right because of the importance of the fact that only one person is involved and in those situations I fall back on he or she or some other mechanism.

Comments

  1. says

    I fall back on he or she or some other mechanism

    I try to do that as well, it’s kind of a fun game – like “avoid stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk.”

  2. raym says

    I think the lowly “it” deserves some consideration:
    Singular – check
    Gender-neutral – check
    Doesn’t sound awkward – check

    Problem solved!

  3. says

    Singular ‘they’ has a long pedigree, and is the simplest solution. We had no problem adjusting to using ‘you’ as second person singular as well as second person plural, and I expect that in fifty years the singular ‘they’ will be just as unremarked.

    And I’d urge you to use it even where it currently “does not sound quite right”, as that’s the only way to make it sound right in those situations.

    I hope that every one reading this now sees that they should do the same.

  4. Holms says

    This debate was always confused to me, as ‘he or she’ has always been the more awkward solution. ‘They’ has been the default option for most people for a long time, as it has been standard for decades, and has history going back centuries.

  5. anat says

    I expect that soon enough there will be something equivalent to y’all to differentiate singular and plural they.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    As an English teacher, I’ve also been defending the singular ‘they’ for a while now, and I’m sure it will eventually win out.

    However, I’ve begun to notice a new trend (I was about to call it a worrisome trend, but maybe it’s okay). This is the use of ‘they’ even when the gender of the person being described is clearly identified: “She asked her boyfriend to come to the dance, but they couldn’t make it.” Is this just laziness, or a sign of a rising generation that finds our notions about gender to be quaintly old-fashioned and ripe for demolition? I guess only time will tell.

    What do y’all think?

  7. phhht says

    “The use of ‘he or she’ or ‘him or her’ is the traditional option…”

    It is every bit as traditional to use the non-gendered “he” (or “she.”) This has been accepted practice for a great many years. If it were not, no one could write this sentence and expect to make himself understood.

  8. says

    @raym #2
    The problem is that “it” is typically used for non-humans. Given the history of how non-binary people have been treated, it has a certain unpleasant ring to it.

    “They” is perfectly fine. Context is usually quite enough to distinguish singular from plural use and it doesn’t sound awkward to me at all. I think it’s really a matter of habit. This will end up another one of those things where our grandchildren will wonder what the big deal was.

  9. says

    One could write this sentence and make himself understood.

    That one is a “her” is of no matter and a reader like phhht only has herself to blame if he is confused.

  10. phhht says

    No, Tabby Lavalamp, you apparently have missed my point.

    In the same way that “they” has been used as non-plural, so have “he” (and “she”) been used as non-gendered.

    “No one” has no gender at all. Since it is the referent of “himself” in the example sentence, it is clear that “himself” has none, either.

    If you insist on imputing gender to a pronoun in a case where clearly none is intended by the speaker, isn’t that sexist?

  11. fentex says

    There’s nothing new about this. ‘They’ has been the non-genered personal pronoun in English since forever and native speakers use it frequently and easily.

    The insistence on ‘him’ is another example of attempts to force Latin conventions on a language that is not Latin.

    This is English…

    1535 FISHER Ways perf. Relig. ix. Wks. (1876) 383:
    “He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues.”

    1749 FIELDING Tom Jones VIII. Xi:
    “Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it.”

    1759 CHESTERF. Lett. IV. ccclv. 170:
    “If a person is born of a gloomy temper … they cannot help it.”

    1835 WHEWELL in Life (1881) 173:
    “Nobody can deprive us of the Church, if they would.”

    1858 BAGEHOT Lit. Stud. (1879) II. 206:
    “Nobody fancies for a moment that they are reading about anything beyond the pale of ordinary propriety.”

    This is some sort of bastardized Latin…

    “Everyone is entitled to his day in court”
    “No person shall be forced to have an abortion against his will”
    “Man, being a mammal, breast-feeds his young”

    Which language do you speak (which third person pronoun would you use)?

    “Everyone saw me before I saw _____.”
    “Someone left _______ books on the desk.”
    “It’s annoying when someone constantly pats ________ on the back.”

    Most people say “them”, “their” and “themselves” because “they” has always been the English gender neutral personal pronoun.

    That style guides are recognizing this is not a change in English but an admission of fact rather than attempt to enforce incorrect rule.

  12. phhht says

    It is simply incorrect to claim that “… “they” has always been the English gender neutral personal pronoun. ”

    You refute your own assertion with your examples.

    Furthermore, if the non-gendered use of “him” (and “her”) were not established practice, then the on-going acceptance of non-plural “they” would not be news.

  13. says

    The “non-gendered” use of “him” (and be serious here, never “her”) is a holdover of male as human default.

    “If you insist on imputing gender to a pronoun in a case where clearly none is intended by the speaker, isn’t that sexist?”

    “Aren’t the people who keep bringing up race the real racists?

  14. phhht says

    No, you’re mistaken to say that the non-gendered use of “she” never occurs. It is infrequent compared to the non-gendered use of “he,” that is true, but why not? Neither one is more non-gendered than the other.

    If the non-gendered use of the pronouns is indeed a “holdover of male as human default,” then surely it is a blow for a less gender-bound society to reject the gendered interpretation and instead, default to the non-gendered one.

    You still fail to refute the clear example of “no one.” That is not a “male default.” “No one” means no gender – which is evidently what the speaker intended.

    By the way, I am with you when it comes to male supremacy. I just think you are mistaken to say that the non-gendered use of “he” and “she” is somehow oppressive. I see it as a blow for gender equality to use the neuter “him”.

  15. grumpyoldfart says

    Until today I thought “they” was the correct pronoun to use. I’ve been using it since the 1950s.

  16. Knight in Sour Armor says

    Grammarians don’t like it, but it’s been in common use for quite some time… may as well make it THE default pro-noun to use for anyone.

  17. Jockaira says

    This has very little to do with correction of sexist speech, rather the historical and ongoing synthesis and simplification of English in the same way that occurs in any extant everyday language. Most are able to extract pertinent meaning from context or from mental reference to the subject under discussion, if they are not then it is usually a small matter that may be clarified with questions. The only ones who would be overly confused by this usage would be reactionary compulsive Grammar Nazis, and that for effect only, i.e. showing off the possession of a high-school edumacation.

  18. says

    I spend time as both genders so I get addressed as both he and she and prefer them. I sort of cringe at being called they, but I might choose to accept it. Others of recent invention have been proposed (e.g. “xe”, “hir”) but they feel a bit odd to use. I grew up using “they” for people, but usually only when referring to an indefinite third person.

    One can use another gender neutral pronoun simply by writing sentences differently, though most aren’t used to the French form (e.g. “On parle…” = “One speaks…”). But it doesn’t even require violating grammar. By using plurals (e.g. “all”, “people”) instead of the singular pronoun everyone, the example sentence is easily fixed: All want their cats to succeed.”

    Another recent one I took to immediately is titles. When describing others, I have long used only Mr. and Ms. (no more Miss and Mrs.), but also used M. which unfortunately is male only in French. But now that I have learnt of Mx. as a title for all people, a non-gender specific honorific. I prefer to be addressed that way and sometimes address others as well to help it catch on.

    And without wading into an argument above, we really need to drop “he” as the default pronoun when referring to individuals in general. It’s insulting and minimizes women.

    raym (#2) –

    I think the lowly “it” deserves some consideration

    Only if you don’t see others or certain others as human beings. Would you object if I called you a thing instead of a person?

  19. says

    WMDKitty — Survivor says (#19) –

    I’m just waiting for the day when there’s a third ticky-box in the sex/gender field on forms and applications.

    I am in the process of renewing my passport and the Canadian government has arrogantly refused to let me have “Other” as my gender. Canada is a signatory to the ICAO and has agreed to comply with international rules on passports, but violates that agreement by refusing third genders. Their response was typical bureaucrat arrogance: “Our mistake isn’t our problem. It’s your problem.”

    Several other countries already offer third genders – the UK, Australia, Nepal, and even Pakistan. I could dress as a woman in Pakistan and no one would bat an eye, but say I’m an atheist and…well, we’ve seen what happened to other atheists in Pakistan. How screwed up is that?

  20. phhht says

    “…we really need to drop “he” as the default pronoun when referring to individuals in general. It’s insulting and minimizes women.”

    I think that is so only if you impute gender to the pronoun. If no gender is meant or intended, how is it insulting? How does it minimize women?

  21. drken says

    @ brucegee1962 #7:

    The problem with the use of “they” in that sentence is that it is unclear who “they” refers to, her boyfriend, or both of them. If it’s him, then the use of “he” is appropriate as his gender has already been defined. By using “they” it suggests that her boyfriend informed her that neither of them could go, which has a different meaning than saying he couldn’t make it. It’s kind of a problem with the singular “they” being indistinguishable from its plural form, but the English language is full of these sorts of issues.

    I assume that the singular “they” will eventually make its way into the language due to its usefulness and lack of better alternative. I have to say I didn’t like initially like it, but it’s growing on me. A similar process happened with the title Ms (which shouldn’t have a period at the end as it doesn’t stand for anything. Sorry, Ms Steinem). There was resistance, but as more women made their way into the workplace there was a need for a way to address women of unknown marital status, and Ms fit the bill.

  22. phhht says

    “I assume that the singular “they” will eventually make its way into the language due to its usefulness and lack of better alternative. ”

    The singular “they” has been in use in English at least since the time of Shakespeare. If you prefer it, by all means, use it.

    But the neuter “he” (and “she”) has been in use at least as long. The neuter pronouns constitute a perfectly valid alternative – as long as you do no insist in imputing gender to them.

  23. Dunc says

    Prior examples of both usages abound, but the insistance on the use of “he” as the correct singular neutral pronoun only really starts during the 19th century.

  24. Friendly says

    phhht, your arguments here are strikingly similar to those I’ve seen before on various FtB blogs from people asserting that because *they* use the c-word as a neutral term or even as an endearment, *no one* should assign an offensive meaning to it or take offense to it (and if anyone does, they’re being sexist). I’m sorry, but you don’t get to circumscribe the meanings that *other people* assign to the words and phrases that you use. For most people, the words “he,” “him,” and “his” *do* carry an implied gender and their use should be avoided if one is not trying to implicitly assign masculinity to their antecedents.

  25. says

    I think phhht is being deliberately obtuse here, because she has to know that “he” and “she” are gendered pronouns and despite her intent when using them, the vast majority of people read them as such.

  26. phhht says

    “I’m sorry, but you don’t get to circumscribe the meanings that *other people* assign to the words and phrases that you use.”

    I agree. And *you* don’t get to circumscribe the meanings *I* assign to my own words.

    She who refuses to accept the use of the neuter pronouns is doing exactly what you condemn: she insists that all readers infer an implicit gender, even when none is intended (or even possible, as is the case with the antecedent “no one”).

    I can’t do much about that, except to explain and defend my position. It’s without question a gender-saturated society, but it is, in my view, both silly and futile to think that one can affect that by trying to mandate changes in grammatical usage.

  27. says

    left0ver1under @21

    Several other countries already offer third genders – the UK, Australia, Nepal, and even Pakistan. I could dress as a woman in Pakistan and no one would bat an eye, but say I’m an atheist and…well, we’ve seen what happened to other atheists in Pakistan. How screwed up is that?

    That’s messed up, man.

  28. Mookie says

    A similar process happened with the title Ms (which shouldn’t have a period at the end as it doesn’t stand for anything. Sorry, Ms Steinem).

    Nope. Mrs., Ms., and Miss are all contractions of the original honorific Mistress, and the use or absence of a period is unrelated. In any case, it’s an all-or-nothing situation: depending on the strain of English, punctuation is either uniformly applied to all contracted honorifics, or to none of them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *