Language Matters - June 6, 2016 - 8 min

Singular They

Of all areas of disputed English grammar, the use of they to refer to a singular antecedent is among the most prominent.

The lesson: Tell that special person you love them before they’re gone.

Them and they both refer to that special person.

Every parent wants their child to be successful in life.

Their refers to every parent.

Many style and grammar authorities have rejected this use on the grounds that they is a pronoun with reference to more than one person; according to this argument, only he and she, which indicate gender, can refer to a single person. Some have branded it a sign of sloppy grammar, or even a modern, artificial re-engineering of the language to force it to have a gender-neutral pronoun.

Traditional Uses

Although rejectors of singular they frequently view it as an innovation, its history is long and complex, and begins with the surprising discovery that they isn’t originally English at all. Old English had the third-person personal subject pronouns (masculine nominative), hēo (feminine nominative) and hīe (plural nominative, any gender). The genitive forms were his (masculine), hire (feminine) and heora (plural, any gender). Languages rarely borrow pronouns, but by the 13th century, following a period of intense contact with the Vikings, Middle English had adopted the Old Norse plural masculine demonstrative þeir as the plural pronoun they/thei, and the Old Norse genitive plural þeirra (any gender) as the possessive determiner þeir/their (any gender). They and their gradually displaced the native hīe and heora. Just a century later, in the 1300s, we find the first attested uses of they with singular reference:

Eche on in þer craft ys wijs.

(“Each one in their craft is wise.”) —The Wycliffite Bible (1382)

The following centuries show numerous examples of they/their/them with a singular antecedent, often one of indeterminate identity such as any person, no one, whosoever, and so forth. An instance by Chaucer occurs following whoso in The Pardoner’s Prologue of The Canterbury Tales (circa 1400):

And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,
They wol come up […]

The Oxford English Dictionary details the frequent appearance of singular they in formal religious texts, culminating in the influential King James Bible.

So likewise shall my heauenly Father doe also vnto you, if yee from your hearts forgiue not euery one his brother their trespasses…

—The King James Bible, Matthew 18:25

Shakespeare uses it in A Comedy of Errors (Act IV, Scene 3), in the voice of the noble character Antipholus of Syracuse:

There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend

The most prominent British novelists continued to use singular they through the 18th century (examples courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary):

Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it.

—Henry Fielding, Tom Jones (1749)

Jane Austen scholar Henry Churchyard counted 87 uses of singular they in her literary corpus, including 37 in the narrator’s voice or the author’s own voice. It is clear that these examples represent a polished, standard variety of British English rather than an informal dialect or colloquial speech.

In short, English usage since the 14th century has widely embraced the use of they with a singular antecedent, especially in cases where the identity is unknown or unspecified. Furthermore, its use has also been considered appropriate in formal and prestigious literary works.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, however, singular they was suddenly condemned by several grammarians. These authors, some of whom were schoolteachers imparting writing skills to adolescents, wanted their students to master agreement between pronouns and their antecedents for greater text cohesion, and saw a clash between singular antecedents and they, which they viewed as plural. To avoid this, most recommended the use of the masculine pronoun he to refer to these generic singular antecedents. Ann Fisher in A New Grammar (1741), asserts that “the Masculine Person answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, any Person who knows what he says.” In their 1895 English Grammar for the Use of High School, Academy and College Class, W. M. Baskervill and J. W. Sewell similarly note but advise against this use of they, viewing the pronoun as plural-only.

In the 20th century, Strunk and White’s influential The Elements of Style similarly rejects they with singular reference, advocating he in its place:

_They. Not to be used when the antecedent is a distributive expression, such as each, each one, everybody, every one, many a man. Use the singular pronoun. […] The use of he as pronoun for nouns embracing both genders is a simple, practical convention rooted in the beginnings of the English language.__

The 1979 edition claimed that “he has lost all suggestion of maleness in these circumstances. […] It has no pejorative connotation; it is never incorrect.” Later editions dispense with this claim, but still reject the singular they.

The “neutral he” approach never worked well in practice, however, because he usually makes the reader or hearer think of a male. Applying it to the first example sentence above, we obtain the following:

The lesson: Tell that special person you love him before he’s gone.

This assumes that the loved person is a man.

Linguist Steven Pinker cites the following examples from Geoffrey Pullum and the author Joseph Lash, involving coordinated male and female antecedents:

Is it your brother or your sister who can hold his breath for four minutes?
She and Louis had a game—who could find the ugliest picture of himself.

These sentences are strange because the male pronoun conflicts with the presence of a female antecedent.

In short, while some authors have heeded the grammarians’ advice and used he instead of they, the former pronoun clearly has a masculine reference and the result is often unnatural.

The generic use of he, never uncontested, was definitively swept away by the cultural and linguistic shift in the 1970s and 1980s that came to see the exclusive use of male pronouns as sexist and exclusionary to women. Interest in gender-neutral language, originally promoted by feminists, was widely embraced by the English-speaking public to the extent that, by the later 20th century, the exclusive use of he appeared old-fashioned and insensitive. Even so, most writers retained the prohibition of the singular they, which had never disappeared from usage.

Several major guides still reject singular they. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (1999; updated 2015) continues to view it as a plural-only pronoun: “at a last resort, the awkward his or her is tolerable; a plural pronoun with a singular antecedent is not.” The Canadian Style rejects the generic he, but also singular they: “English lacks a singular pronoun that signifies the non-specific he or she.” The Chicago Manual of Style in its 14th edition recommended the use of they with singular reference, noting its “revival” and its previous “venerable use by such writers as Addison, Austen, Chesterfield, Fielding, Ruskin, Scott, and Shakespeare”. The two later editions, however, reverse this position, claiming that “while this usage [of singular they] is accepted in casual contexts, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing”.

These style guides advocate a range of tactics for achieving gender neutrality in writing, most of which involve pluralization or recasting the sentence.

Applying this advice to our example sentence from above, we obtain the following unsatisfactory results:

The lesson: tell that special person you love him or her before he or she is gone.

Replacing they with him or her produces an awkward and confusing sentence.

The lesson: express those special people you love them before they are gone.

Making the antecedent plural (those people instead of that person) removes the individual focus, altering the image and perhaps the idea.

The lesson: express your love for that special person while there is still time.

While this is perfectly grammatical, recasting the sentence using nouns to avoid them and they makes the writing much less direct.

Accepting singular they gives more structural freedom, allowing authors to use basic, hard-to-avoid structures like active verbs and third-person possessives with generic nouns. Always recasting the sentence to avoid these can become a handicap.

Indeed, cracks have begun to appear in the prescriptive bulwark against singular they. As the public has become more aware of its long-standing presence in English writing and its use by illustrious authors, its condemnation has appeared increasingly unjustified. Garner’s Modern American Usage (2003) recommends cautious use of singular they, and its avoidance where possible because its use is stigmatized. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language is more open, stating that singular they is “particularly common” and “stylistically neutral” with generic antecedents such as everyone, someone and no one, but more restricted with common noun antecedents.

Some major dictionaries now accept singular-reference use as a sense in the entry for they, while others have even begun to employ it in their definitions. The Oxford Dictionaries blog states that “it’s the policy of current English Oxford Dictionaries to use plural pronouns and determiners such as they and their in definitions in cases where, formerly, singular forms such as he and his would have been selected.” Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary adds this use as a sense of they, noting that “the use of they, them, and their as non-gender-specific singulars … has always had currency in spoken English and is now increasingly accepted in written English. […] This use of they gives rise to the form themself for the reflexive pronoun by analogy with myself, himself, etc.” The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) includes it as the sense “used to refer to the one previously mentioned or implied, especially as a substitute for generic he: Every person has rights under the law, but they don’t always know them.” The majority of the AHD usage panel also accepted the sentence Everyone returned to their seats, leading the AHD lexicographers to conclude that “writers who choose to use they with a singular antecedent should rest assured that they are in good company—even if a fair number of traditionalists still wince at the usage.” Antidote has similarly decided to use it with some generic antecedents in the dictionary.

This increasing acceptance has translated into practical gains for this pronoun, notably the 2015 decision of the Washington Post, a major American newspaper, to accept singular they as standard, and its selection as Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society that same year. They is useful and becoming more and more standard with each passing year, and it is in this spirit that Antidote has decided to allow and use it.

Before declaring complete victory for singular they, however, a few caveats are necessary. First of all, singular they is likely to remain only one among many ways to refer to generic antecedents. Even they-accepters tend to use a repertoire of strategies for achieving gender neutrality in language. Steven Pinker, for instance, in A Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Language in the 21st Century, defends singular they and very occasionally uses it with antecedents like no publication. Far more commonly, however, he alternates freely between he and she for the writer and reader respectively (although not within the same chapter). This allows the reader to visualize examples of typical people who happen to be male or female but whose gender is incidental to the discussion, whereas using singular they everywhere might have made the text more abstract and harder to follow. Singular they is most acceptable, then, with “semantically plural” antecedents, those who stand for groups, and even then is used rather sparingly.

Second, in contemporary spoken English, one also finds an “optional” use of singular they with antecedents whose gender is known to the speaker or writer.

Every mother will tell their children to think twice about it.

Their refers to every mother (female).

I came back because I saw someone I knew and I went to talk to them.

The speaker could have used him or her to specify the gender, and perhaps draw more attention to the individuality of the person.

One of the football hooligan guys was stumbling around, and then they fell off the stand.

He fell would also have worked here.

Whatever woman I marry may not have the same career as I do, but they must be equally passionate about theirs.

She and hers could work here, but would evoke a specific woman rather than women in general.

In the above cases, we observe singular they used with antecedents that are clearly male or female given the context, but whom the author or speaker wishes to depersonalize for stylistic and rhetorical reasons. This usage, while popular and unremarkable, may still be considered non-standard in formal English.

Innovative Uses

Very recent years have seen an innovative use of singular they with specific individual antecedents whose gender is non-binary or who do not wish to state a gender. In 2014, Facebook allowed users to choose from a variety of gender options including “agender”, “androgynous”, “gender fluid”, “intersex”, and many others—and singular they/their is used with virtually all of them. Users see updates like

Emily changed their profile picture.

Traditionally, this can only mean “Emily changed [other people’s] picture.” But this usage intends their with specific singular third-person reference without specifying gender. This usage, too, is currently non-standard among wide sections of the English-speaking public and in formal English, but it is possible that it will become standard in the future if acceptance of this sense increases.

As a grammatical note, most singular they-users still treat this pronoun as grammatically plural, triggering plural verb agreement and taking the reflexive form themselves. 1

The average American works longer hours than the average German, but they don’t produce as much.

Not *they doesn’t produce as much.

Somebody appears to have helped themselves to the pudding.

Not *…helped themself…

Singular they is fascinating because, even though most English speakers use it every day, its conventional status and usage are in transition. Antidote has chosen a moderate position on the spectrum of opinion, accepting singular they with impersonal antecedents as a feature of standard English, and one among many tools for avoiding sexism in writing, while avoiding some of its most innovative and controversial uses.

  1. While the singular themself is used by some to refer to an individual in a gender-neutral way, the word has yet to establish itself in prescriptive usage and can sound nonstandard to those not familiar with the term. When in doubt, themselves is always appropriate. 

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