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The grayness of they-ness

[Note: An updated post on this subject was published on May 22, 2017.]

Q: I insist that my college students refer to a singular noun (e.g., “student”) with a singular pronoun (e.g., “he” or “she”). They may use “they,” “their,” and “them” only with plural nouns, such as “students.” However, the professor in charge of our Writing Center disagrees. Please help me be sure I am giving my students the correct advice.

A: You’re technically right. But as far as common usage goes, there’s some room for dispute. What’s acceptable may depend on the kind of writing the students are doing and the audience they’re writing for.

What’s indisputably true is that anyone who uses “they,” “them,” or “their” to refer to an indefinite someone is using English that’s considered informal, at least as of today. (Stay tuned for further developments.)

In formal English, these are third-person plural pronouns. And students in any writing program should be aware of that.

We’ve written about this subject in a column in the New York Times Magazine. We’ve also discussed it many times on our blog, including postings in May and August of 2011.

Historically, there’s a case to be made for using “they” and company as indefinite singulars. People used them that way centuries ago without getting their knuckles rapped. But for the past 200 years or so, they’ve generally been considered plural.

This is a usage that’s in transition. In the meantime, anyone who wants to be grammatically as well as politically correct without resorting to “he/she” or some variant can always recast the sentence and make the antecedent plural.

Instead of “Every parent loves his or her (or their) child,” make it “All parents love their children.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) labels “they” as a “usage problem” when “used to refer to the one previously mentioned or implied, especially as a substitute for generic he.

The dictionary gives this sentence as an example: “Every person has rights under the law, but they don’t always know them.”

American Heritage explains further in an extensive usage note, which we’ll break up into paragraphs to make it easier to read:

“The use of an ostensibly plural pronoun such as they, them, themselves, or their with a singular antecedent dates back at least to 1300, and over the years such constructions have been used by many admired writers, including William Makepeace Thackeray (‘A person can’t help their birth’), George Bernard Shaw (‘To do a person in means to kill them’), and Anne Morrow Lindbergh (‘When you love someone you do not love them all the time’).

“The practice is so widespread both in print and in speech that it generally passes unnoticed. Forms of they are useful as gender-neutral substitutes for generic he and for coordinate forms like his/her or his or her (which can sound clumsy, especially when repeated frequently).

“Nevertheless, many people avoid using forms of they with a singular antecedent out of respect for traditional pronoun agreement. Most of the Usage Panel still upholds the practice of traditional pronoun agreement, but in decreasing numbers.

“In our 1996 survey, 80 percent rejected the use of they in the sentence A person at that level should not have to keep track of the hours they put in. In 2008, however, only 62 percent of the Panel still held this view, and by 2011, just 55 percent disapproved of the sentence Each student must have their pencil sharpened.

“Moreover, in 2008, a majority of the Panel accepted the use of they with antecedents such as anyone and everyone, pronouns that are grammatically singular but carry a plural meaning. Some 56 percent accepted the sentence If anyone calls, tell them I can’t come to the phone, and 59 percent accepted Everyone returned to their seats.

“The trend, then, is clear. 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.

“For those who wish to adhere to the traditional rule, one good solution is to recast the sentence in the plural: People at that level should not have to keep track of the hours they put in.

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