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The singular life of “they”

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

Q: I’m a 69-year-old psychotherapist who learned his grammar from a Jesuit-trained teacher obsessed with diagramming. As a stickler for good usage, I’m especially troubled by the use of “their” for “his” or “her.” Am I nuts or is the usage changing?

A: No, you aren’t nuts (as you ought to know, since you’re a psychotherapist). But yes, the usage is changing.

As close observers of the language, we are well aware that it’s a living thing, and that the prescriptive “rules” invented at various periods by well-intentioned grammarians were often groundless and misguided.

But like you, we’ve drawn the line at the use of “they,” “them,” and “their” in reference to an indefinite someone—at least in formal English and at least for the time being.

We’ve resisted this usage in our own writing on the ground that a third-person plural pronoun is inappropriate in reference to a singular somebody, though some of our favorite writers have used “they” and company in just that way.

We grant that this use of “they” is acceptable in informal and colloquial English, and that it has a long history, but we think that it’s still not an acceptable formal usage in contemporary English.

Here’s what we wrote about the subject on our blog in 2013:

“The plural pronouns ‘they,’ ‘them,’ and ‘their’ were often used as indefinite singulars centuries ago, and are quite commonly used that way today in informal (some would say substandard) English. But in formal English, they’re restricted to the plural.

“And anyone who wants to be 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.’ ”

We still believe this. But ask us again in 10 years. The “formal-versus-informal” argument aside, the singular use of “they” has shown no signs of going away and has clearly become established.

Earlier this year, linguists recognized this fact in a rather emphatic way. In January, the American Dialect Society voted for “they,” used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, as the “Word of the Year” for 2015.

As the organization said in a press release, “They was recognized by the society for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.”

Although the announcement singled out a very specific use of “they” (for people who don’t consider themselves either male or female), it called attention to the more general use of “they” as a generic singular for an unknown person.

For example, “If anyone calls, tell them I’ve gone for the day.”

The press release says “they” was long used as a singular by writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.

(We could add Byron, Thackeray, Goldsmith, Swift, Wharton, Orwell, Auden, as well as the King James Version of the Bible, all cited in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.)

In its announcement, the society noted that in 2015 the “singular they was embraced by the Washington Post style guide,” but we think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

The Post style guide says that it’s “usually possible, and preferable, to recast sentences as plural” and that the singular “they” should be used only in “the rare case when such a rewrite is impossible or hopelessly awkward.”

Commenting in the ADS press release, the linguist Ben Zimmer said: “While many novel gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, they has the advantage of already being part of the language.”

Recent scholarship has shown that the use of “they” in a singular sense is not just an aberration but an expected development in a language that has a hole in it.

“In truth, the English language lacks a gender-neutral (sex-indefinite) pronoun for third-person singular,” Darren K. LaScotte wrote in the February 2016 issue of the journal American Speech.

Since the 14th century, he wrote, “they” has been used to fill the gap. And it’s still in use, despite generations of advice to the contrary.

LaScotte conducted a study to determine “which pronouns native English speakers use when writing about a genderless person,” and found that “they” was the overwhelming choice.

In using a pronoun to refer back to a single person of no particular sex (“the ideal student”), 71 percent of the participants chose “they.” The other alternatives, including the combination “he or she” and the generic masculine “he,” trailed far behind.

Those results came from a question that did not call the participants’ attention to the pronouns they used. But the results were slightly different later in the survey, when they were specifically asked about pronoun use in reference to a single, genderless person.

When asked which pronoun was appropriate in a formal context, 55 percent chose the combination “he or she” and 25 percent chose “they.”

When asked which pronoun was appropriate for informal use, 74 percent chose “they.” Another 18 percent chose “he or she,” and 10 percent chose “he.”

We’re not surprised by these results. In informal writing or conversational English, “they” is used as a singular by even educated people today. And in such informal usages it doesn’t seem to call attention to itself.

But formal English is another matter, and here a singular “they” looks like a mistake, in our opinion. Few scholarly writers, even those who pride themselves on their descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) attitudes, would deliberately refer to a single student as “they.”

So we’ll stick with what we’ve written before. Singular “they” is fine in informal usage, but we don’t advise it in formal English.

LaScotte’s conclusion was different. He says that “writers of handbooks should be less timid in offering singular they as a strategy for solving the singular, generic antecedent problem in academic writing.”

Call us timid if you like, but we don’t think the singular “they” has fully arrived in formal use. We’d be surprised if academic writers began consciously using it any time soon, and if the editors of scholarly journals began accepting it.

One final word. The use of “they” to refer to someone clearly identified as a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, is indefensible (“a man in their prime” … “a woman knows their own breasts”).

There’s certainly no point in being gender-neutral when there’s no question about gender.

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