In Defense of the Singular ‘They’

by Chris McCaffery

This essay was originally written for Dr. Daniel Coupland’s EDU 101: English Grammar course.

Believers in strict proscription in grammatical construction advocate the use of he as the neuter singular pronoun. This is an imperfect attempt to make up for English’s lack of a natural neuter singular pronoun. When attempting to follow a proscribed rule and preserve the numerical consistency of pronoun to antecedent, we are forced to imply meaning perhaps unintended. He, though used grammatically as neuter, cannot help but give the reader a masculine meaning. Attempts to resolve this problem through such constructions as (s)he, he/she, or s/he continue the problem by forcing a consideration of gender when none is needed or intended. Luckily, popular and historical usage gives us a solution: the use of they in the singular. By accepting the singular usage of they already widespread colloquially, we gain a pronoun that preserves meaning and maintains grammatical consistency without sacrificing understanding.

The use of they as a singular, neuter personal pronoun has been enjoyed by English writers for centuries. Geoffrey Chaucer, in the Canterbury Tales, used they as a pronoun for a singular noun. For example, the verse:

And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,

They wol come up and offre in Goddes name,

And I assoile hem by the auctoritee

Which that by bulle ygraunted was to me.

(6.385–8)

Here, the word “whoso” is used in the singular, in a similar manner to the modern anyone. The pronoun used to refer back to the singular, indefinite “whoso” is “they”, normally a plural pronoun but used here in a completely understandable manner. Henry Churchyard has compiled many examples of the singular they from historical literary sources. Offenders listed on his website include Jane Austen, Thomas More, and William Shakespeare; I appeal to authority and note that our linguistic history offers few greater than these. It was not until the 19th century that grammarians began the attempt to tramp out usage of they as the gender-indeterminate pronoun and relegate it to the pluralized ghetto.

The usage of the generic they in no way impairs communication. Unlike the use of he, a singular they does not single out males when the meaning of the sentence calls for men or women. It is not radical feminism to suggest that proscribing a form of pronoun usage that will give readers or listeners a picture of men or a man, when that is not the intended meaning, is not helpful to communication. Ben Yagoda writing in the Los Angeles Times provides this example of a sentence that is incorrect but grammatically perfect: “Man, being a mammal, breast-feeds his young.” “Man”, of course, is a singular noun as the subject of the sentence, and according to grammatical proscription ought to take the pronouns he, or his, or him. This is made ridiculous by the actual meaning of the sentence. Breast-feeding is not a male activity, unless you’re a grammarian. Without rephrasing, the sentence might become, “Man, being a mammal, breast-feeds their young.” They cannot fix a sentence completely, and this instance ought to be rewritten; however, the move from wrong and awkward to merely awkward is still significant, and most sentences are blessedly free from such awkward phrasing. Sometimes, rephrasing is a necessary solution, but forcing a good sentence into the contortions of proscribed grammar is unnecessary; a solution already exists.

The use of they in the singular is already widespread. When the 2011 edition of the New International Version translation of The Bible was introduced, the translators began to use the singular they in their translations. Their decision was the result of an extensive survey of English usage that showed that:

The gender-neutral pronoun they (them/their) is by far the most common way that English-language speakers and writers today refer back to singular antecedents such as “whoever,” “anyone,” “somebody,” “a person,” “no one,” and the like.

A usage with such widespread acceptance as the singular they enjoys can’t be hard to understand for speakers of English. If language’s purpose is to communicate ideas, a language should effective at doing that among a wide range of people. Were the singular they at all uncommon, it would be wrong to call for its acceptance, because it would be imposing on the language something out of the norm for most of the people who use it. With usage as it is, it is more likely to seem out of place to the majority of the people with whom you are communicating. Especially in the case of antecedents that are semantically plural, such as everyone, the use of they is the most common-sense solution. Even though these words are singular syntactically, they clearly refer to more than one person.

Each person is entitled to his (or her!) own opinion, and many people are quite happy using he in all cases. It can create confusion, however, and the sentence-wrangling recommended to avoid the problem can create needless extra work and work atrocities on elegant usage. There is not a person in the English-speaking world who, when they read this sentence, would be frustrated by its failure to communicate. Strictness in grammatical proscription is often a useful, worthwhile, and noble task that preserves essential parts of the language from the degeneration and vulgarities everyday usage imposes in it (who/whom is a notable pronoun example). This is not one of those cases. The battle was over before it started. The singular they is a legitimate, historical, grammatical, and sensible part of the English language, and everyone would be a lot better off if they accepted it.

Editor-in-Chief Chris McCaffery is a junior studying history and English. He is a member of the Dow Journalism Program.

Image courtesy Elena Creed.

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