The Singular “They”


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The singular they?!

Yes, the singular “they,” as in Everyone learns “their” ABCs or What one doesn’t know can’t hurt “them.”

While the singular “they” has been a topic of much discussion lately, the Oxford English Dictionary traces its use back to 1375 where singular “they” appeared in a poem titled “The Romance of William and the Werewolf.” In fact, the singular “they” is not new at all and has been used for some six hundred-plus years as a gender-neutral pronoun when the gender of a pronoun’s antecedent (what the pronoun refers to) is not clear, known, or important.

What is new, however, is the use of “they” as a non-binary pronoun–that is, a singular pronoun for those who do not identify with either he or she.

Grammar curmudgeons and language snobs rail at such use because “they” is a plural pronoun and can’t possibly refer to a singular word.

Yet such style guides and publications as The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA), The Washington Post, The Associated Press, Chicago Manual of Style, Modern Language Association, Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the list goes on, all recognize this new use of and meaning for “they.” The American Dialect Society, a long-standing group of linguists, scholars, grammarians, etymologists, editors, and others, not only voted singular “they” the word of the year in 2015 (as did Merriam-Webster’s unabridged dictionary in 2019), the American Dialect Society also voted singular “they” the word of the decade for 2010 – 2019.

While some are not comfortable with or simply dislike the use of singular “they,” one needs to realize that language is a reflection of culture, and culture, we can only hope, evolves. In Puritan New England in the 15th century flirting was considered a crime. Flirting! If you had too much to drink and wandered about in public, your punishment was to march around town with a sign that read “Drunkard.” And let’s not forget poor Hester Prynne or the

“witches” in Salem. Much as those crimes and punishments changed over time, so, too, has the meaning of “they.”

In fact, language changes all the time. New words are added. Old words fall out of favor. Words take on new meanings or have new shades of meaning. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 650 new words were added in 2019 alone, bringing the total of words in the English language to around 470,000 words. That’s a ginormous number of words!

At one time the word baseball was written as two separate words, base ball, but over time as the word (and indeed, the sport) caught on, it evolved to “base” and “ball” being hyphenated and then eventually, as use continued and as the sport continued to gain in popularity, “base-ball” became “baseball” to reflect its ongoing presence in American culture. The etymological evolution of the word parallels the way in which the word became a part of American culture. The nonbinary use of the singular ‘they” is essentially following the same trajectory as the word baseball in terms of its general evolution and use in American English. 

So what’s all the hooey?

Perhaps tradition. Perhaps stubbornness. Perhaps just a general resistance to change. One long-standing work-around to the singular “they” conundrum had been the use of a singular masculine pronoun. For many years, such bristle-worthy sentences as “Everybody is entitled to his opinion” or “I do not know who the doctor is, but I am sure he is great” were not only commonplace but they were also correct. In the1960s, such usage of masculine pronouns exclusively began to lose favor because they excluded women and the singular gender-neutral pronoun constructs “he or she” and “his or her” saw the light of day. While gender neutrality is important and using sexist language in one’s writing is not acceptable or correct by today’s standards, the problem with using “he or she” came down to awkwardness.

Listen to this sentence: “Everybody tries to do his or her best but success is determined by how much motivation he or she has and the sacrifices he or she is willing to make in order to reach his or her goal.” Sure, the sentence is an extreme example, but the awkwardness is real, and often several sentences running need to use a “he/she” construct, so the awkwardness continues.

“They” as a singular nonbinary word makes perfect sense for a couple of reasons. First, its initial use was not only an effort to improve the ambiguity of a reference, but it was also an effort at gender-neutral language in the sense that using “they” in the singular could be both masculine and feminine. Second, just as the use of “he/she” constructs was an effort at language inclusivity, so, too, is the nonbinary singular “they” as more and more people do not identify with the pronoun “he” or “she.” Bias-free language is needed to be inclusive of all people regardless of what language purists or traditionalists or stuck-in-the past grammarians advocate is the correct way to use language. While the “rule” may require pronoun-antecedent agreement, if “they” is both singular and plural, then it would agree with a singular antecedent.

To be fair, the singular nonbinary use of “they” is gaining wider acceptance even among staunch grammarians. In addition, the 7th edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association–that’s right, APA–has now officially endorsed the use of singular “they,” writing on its blog the pronoun is “inclusive of all people and helps writers avoid making assumptions about gender.”

Thus, we have grammatically correct sentences such as “When someone feels alienated by language that is not inclusive, they feel left out.”

Many people will not even be aware of the difference in usage as “they” in the plural has long been used to refer to singular indefinite pronouns such as “each,” everyone,” “everybody,” and “someone” much to the chagrin of English teachers everywhere. However, the times they are a-changing, and some may even find it ironic that a sentence like “Each person had to make their own decision” that was once grammatically incorrect when they were in school is now grammatically correct.

Some people–even those who recognize the importance of inclusivity in language use–may find using the singular “they” difficult, but the English language does not have a singular pronoun other than “it” that lacks gender identification, and writing a sentence like “The linguist said that it thought any change in language usage would certainly bring about new language problems” just sounds wrong.

While no singular gender-free pronoun other than “it” exists in English, some have used such alternatives as “zir,” “ze,” “hir”–h, i, r–and others, but no particular pronoun substitute has caught on. Other countries without gender-neutral singular pronouns have faced the same dilemma, but so far only Sweden seemed to have solved the problem by officially adding the singular gender-neutral pronoun “hen” to its language.

One way writers resolve this issue is by using the pronoun of choice of an individual when possible. APA says in the 7th edition to “always use a person’s self-identified pronoun, including when a person uses the singular “they” as their pronoun.” Of course it’s not always possible to know an individual’s choice, and a writer should not make assumptions about what someone’s choice might be, so in this regard, the best approach is to either reword the sentence entirely to eliminate any pronoun reference or follow the rule for usage and use the singular “they.”

Until next week–

Kurtis Clements

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4 Responses

  1. Stephanie Thompson says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights on this new APA rule. I have had pronoun/antecedent rules so ingrained for so long that it may take me a while to get used to this change, but I do think it is long overdue given that the usage is more inclusive (and less awkward, as your example so nicely illustrates).

  2. Dr. Sean Doyle says:

    Such an awesome email! Thanks for sharing this… very well written and intriguing 🙂

    On Fri, Aug 14, 2020 at 9:00 AM Purdue Global Academic Success Center and Writing Center wrote:

    > Purdue Global Academic Success Center and Writing Center posted: ” If you > do not see the podcast player, click here to listen. The singular they?! > Yes, the singular “they,” as in Everyone learns “their” ABCs or What one > doesn’t know can’t hurt “them.” While the singular “they” has been a topic > of much discussi” >

  3. Glad you read the email and appreciated the content. You’ll get an email each Friday announcing a new entry, but you can also check out the blog here: https://purdueglobalwriting.center/

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