The problem of what pronoun to use to describe the third person singular has been around for a long time because in English this pronoun has been a gendered one. It used to be that people used the male form of he/him as the default that was tacitly supposed to include both genders but that assumption has long been rejected as sexist. People who are grammatical purists tried to find various ways around it. Resorting to switching everything in a sentence to just the plural form was not always possible and even when it could be done, tended to make sentences less specific and more bland. The more awkward circumlocution ‘he or she’ or ‘his or her’ tends to get really tedious after a while.
But the issue gained a lot more urgency with the growing realization that gender is not binary and to insist on binary usage is to misgender some people. There have been various new gender-neutral forms suggested, such as ze/zir, ze/hir, and xe/xem but the one that seems to be gaining the most steam (and which I have adopted) is to use they/them and its derivatives as the third person singular. Its dominance was reinforced when Merriam-Webster selected it as their 2019 Word of the Year, in which they pointed out that this usage was not new.
English famously lacks a gender-neutral singular pronoun to correspond neatly with singular pronouns like everyone or someone, and as a consequence they has been used for this purpose for over 600 years.
More recently, though, they has also been used to refer to one person whose gender identity is nonbinary, a sense that is increasingly common in published, edited text, as well as social media and in daily personal interactions between English speakers. There’s no doubt that its use is established in the English language, which is why it was added to the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary this past September.
Anne Fadiman, a professor of English writing, describes her own evolution on this question in an informative and often amusing essay in the August 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine (subscription may be required). She was aided in her transition by her students who, as usual, are way ahead of faculty in learning about and adopting trends.
She says that on questions of language, people tend to be either prescriptivists (who favor rules and standards that suggest how people should talk) or descriptivists (who favor popular usage, that this is how people actually talk). She says that she started out firmly in the prescriptivist camp and thus gagged at the use of the singular they. Her acceptance was aided by her own realization that when we say to someone ‘you are’, which we do unthinkingly and accept as correct, we are mixing singular and plural forms and thus technically saying something that a prescriptivist would view as a solecism. She realized that there are many more examples, so that the problem with a singular ‘they’ is really its unfamiliarity.
I already say plenty of things that aren’t grammatical just because everybody does and I’m used to them. I wouldn’t say “I aren’t,” but I say “Aren’t I?” I wouldn’t say “Me is it,” but I say “It’s me” even though—as per Easy English Exercises, Lesson 60, “Case Forms of Pronouns”—“me” should be “I” because it’s a predicate nominative, not a direct object.
Sometimes they just sounds better. If, instead of “If you love someone, set them free,” Sting had sung, “If you love someone, set him or her free” or (following the suggestion in my grammar handout to make the whole sentence plural) “If you love people, set them free,” fans worldwide would have torn up their concert tickets.
Even after Fadiman accepted that this was a welcome development, she highlighted one source of her discomfort which was that, like everyone who prides themselves on their command of language, she feared that a reader or listener may not know that they were using this form deliberately in order to be gender inclusive and not because they did not know proper grammar. For academics and writers particularly, committing what might be seen as grammatical errors is something to be avoided.
I was amused by that because I could relate to it. Growing up in Sri Lanka, the ‘correct’ use of English (both in terms of grammar and pronunciation) was a class marker, showing that one was at least middle class and had gone to elite schools and moved in the ‘right’ social circles where English was the language spoken by everyone. There was a huge amount of this kind of linguistic and cultural snobbery and open disdain towards those who did not meet the standard. I recall that when I was about ten, a relative asked me to go to the next room and get a book of music by Chopin. I had a sense from the way it was asked that this was some kind of test. I went and looked through the music books by Beethoven, Mozart, and others before figuring out, more or less by a process of elimination, that the book with the name Chopin must be the one that was sought, though I was not at that time familiar with his name. When I returned with the book, I sensed surprise from my relative, as if she had expected me say that I could not find any book by Showpan. On another occasion, a different relative laughed openly at me when I mispronounced the name of the French author Stendahl. The residual effects of that kind of linguistic snobbery may be why I too had an initial sense of discomfort at using the singular they, fearing that people might think I did not know ‘proper’ grammar. Now, of course, I just don’t give a damn.
Fadiman classifies the degrees of acceptance of the singular they into a hierarchy of five categories, encompassing more people as you go to higher levels.
- Refusing to use it in any way, shape, or form.
- Using it only for nonbinary people.
- Using it with indefinite pronouns, like anyone and everybody (“Does everybody have their mittens?”).
- Using it in other situations in which gender isn’t known or relevant (“A driver should know how to park their car”).
- Using it for everyone.
Fadiman says that she started out in the second category and has “now moved cautiously into the third, at least sometimes, though only in conversation” but recently found herself writing a sentence in her journal that for the first time, belonged to category four. I am in category four.