Singular They — the Word of the Year

The American Dialect Society has spoken – and the word of the year is the singular “They”.  Grammarians panic!

What is “singular they”?  Odds are, you use it all the time, but it’s been a point of contention for English teachers and linguists for years.

English has both singular and plural pronouns.  We say, in the singular, that “he laughs” or “she laughs”, or “it laughs”.  When we’re talking about more than one person, we say “they laugh” or “we laugh” – all very straightforward.  Likewise, “his”, “hers” and “its” are singular, while “their” and “them” are plural.

But what if you don’t know the gender of the person you’re talking about?  Or if you’re talking about one of a large group of people?  Take the following sentence for example:

Every student opened ________ textbook.

What pronoun do you use?  English’s only gender-neutral singular pronoun is “it”, and that’s usually not how you want to refer to people; it’s mostly reserved for inanimate objects!

You can’t use his because not every student is a guy – you wouldn’t say “Dorothy opened his textbook”.  Similarly, you wouldn’t use “her”, because not every student is a girl – you wouldn’t say “Jim opened her textbook”.  So either of those singular pronouns are out.  So, what do you use?  English doesn’t really have a great answer for this, though there are a number of different ways that we try to get around it.

Some professors will tell you to just re-write the sentence and avoid the whole matter.  “All of the students opened their textbooks” makes the sentence plural, and you don’t have to worry about it.  Of course, it can be awkward to constantly re-write sentences to avoid the issue, and it doesn’t really solve anything.  So that’s not a great solution.

A second option, used for many years, was the generic “he”.  That is, when you’re dealing with an example where the gender is unknown or doesn’t matter, you default to “he”, which you use without making any claim to the gender of who you’re referring to.  We see that in the Declaration of Independence – All men are created equal – and on the moon landing –one giant step for mankindTherefore, you’d say “every student opened his textbook”, and that was considered correct.

The problem, of course, is that that’s sexist language.  It’s taking men as the default status for people, and indicates that women are the exception – an edge case.  That’s potentially offensive, and at the very least is outdated.  The generic “she” some people use instead – “every student opened her textbook” – has the same issues, only in reverse.

So, what’s technically correct?  It’s the pronoun “he or she”, sometimes written as “(s)he”.  That’s a mouthful – either three words where one will do, or a weird word with parenthesis.  They’re far more cumbersome than any other option, and break up the flow of sentences.  Also, not everyone falls into the category of “he” or “she”, and are therefore excluded even in this pronoun.  Other people alternate between he or she, in a sort of hope that the bias will sort of cancel itself out over time.  Still others suggest inventing a new pronoun – often zhe or thon – to fill the gap, but those have never caught on.

So that brings us back to singular “they”.  To most native speakers, “Every student opened their textbook” sounds more natural than “every student opened his or her textbook.”  It has great historical precedent, too – Shakespeare uses it in Hamlet, it’s in some translations of the Bible, it appears in Alice in Wonderland and Pride and Prejudice.  It also appears all the time in common speech – it feels like the natural solution to the problem.

But no, grammarians say.  If “they” is plural, it can’t be singular as well.  Why?  Well, there really isn’t a solid reason why, other than “that’s the rule”.  And so it’s remained for over a century and a half.

Well, that’s changing.  The trend of using “they” in the singular is growing more and more prevalent by the day – and, at a certain point, language changes to fit how people are using it.  In a generation, the idea of singular they being somehow wrong will probably seem antiquated.

Until then, though, ask your professor if they mind it.  No sense in losing grade points because they’re stuck in the past.

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