[Note: An updated post on this subject was published on May 22, 2017.]
Q: A friend of mine (and I mean it) insists that “they/them/their” can be used in place of “he/she/him/her,” etc. For instance: “Has anyone lost their pit bull?” This sounds wrong to me. Can you help me persuade my friend that it’s wrong?
A: It sounds wrong to us too, though we’d be more concerned about that lost pit bull than about the questionable grammar.
Actually, this is a more complicated question than you think!
Granted, “they/them/their” are third-person plural pronouns. But many, many people use them in a singular sense, especially in reference to unspecified or indefinite people (as in “If someone calls, tell them I’m out”).
Furthermore, this usage, while considered a misusage for the last 200 years or so, has some history on its side. We’ve written about this several times in the past, including in the New York Times Magazine.
For centuries, we wrote, “they” was a universal pronoun. Writers as far back as Chaucer used “they” and company for singular and plural, masculine and feminine, and nobody seemed to mind.
We’ve also written about this subject in Origins of the Specious, our book about language myths and misconceptions, as well as on our blog in 2011 and 2008.
As we point out in Origins of the Specious, traditionalists find nothing wrong with using “he” to refer to an anybody or an everybody, male or female.
But this is a relatively recent usage, as these things go, and is considered inappropriate by modern linguists.
By the way, it wasn’t cooked up by a male sexist grammarian. If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book.
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