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Fifty shades of ‘they’

Q: I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard Pat defending the singular use of “they” on the radio. Say it ain’t so.

A: “They” is a legitimate way of referring back to an unknown person or persons, neither singular nor plural, masculine nor feminine.

So there’s nothing wrong with this kind of sentence: “Nobody eats kale because they like it.” There’s no need to use “he or she” instead (“Nobody eats kale because he or she likes it”).

Although some people object to the usage, the most respected modern grammarians now say this use of “they” with indefinite pronouns—“everybody,” “nobody,” “anyone,” and so on—is grammatically correct.

Why? Because indefinite pronouns are plural in meaning, even though they’re technically singular.

The argument is that “they” can refer back to “everybody” and the rest on grounds of notional agreement, by which a word’s real meaning outweighs its strict grammatical form. (We’ve discussed notional agreement several times on the blog, most recently in a post last month.)

By this reasoning, “everybody” and “nobody” and “anyone” are notionally plural, even though they’re used with singular verbs.

They don’t mean just one person, because when we use them we mean “all people,” “no people,” “any people.” That’s why there’s no conflict in referring back to them with “they.”

Here’s what language authorities are saying about the use of “they” (and its other forms, “them,” “their,” and “themselves”) in reference to indefinite nouns and pronouns.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “Notional agreement is in control, and its dictates must be followed.”

The usage guide says great writers have used “they” with indefinite nouns and pronouns since Chaucer’s time and such uses “are not lapses.” Rather, they “are uses following a normal pattern in English that was established” in the Middle Ages.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, written by Geoffrey K. Pullum and Rodney Huddleston: “The view taken here is that they, like you, can be either plural or singular.”

In another of their books, A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar, Pullum and Huddleston write: “Semantically singular they is well established in fine literature and completely natural in both conversation and writing.”

Pullum has written elsewhere that “like almost everyone else who uses English normally,” he would not hesitate to write a sentence like “Nobody ever thinks traffic congestion problems are their fault.”

A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, by Randolph Quirk and others: Indefinite pronouns “can refer to more than one entity, and be notionally plural.”

Although “they” in such references was once regarded as informal, the authors say, it’s now “increasingly accepted even in formal usage.”

Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.): In cases where “they” and “them” refer back to indefinite pronouns, “synesis trumps the strict rules of grammar.” (“Synesis” is another term for notional agreement.)

The author, Bryan A. Garner, uses the example “Everybody was crouched behind furniture to surprise me, and they tried to. But I already knew they were there.” A rewording with “he,” Garner says, would result in “deranged writing.”

Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.): “The process [using forms of “they” with indefinite pronouns] now seems irreversible.”

Standard dictionaries, too, now regard this use of “they” as standard English. Here’s Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example:

“The use of they, them, their, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts.”

The dictionary gives this example: “Everyone tries to make the person they love just like themselves.”

For convenience, many linguists and usage writers refer to this construction as “the singular they.” But that phrase is somewhat misleading.

“They” always has a plural verb—as in “they are”—and when it refers to a singular antecedent, that antecedent is meant in a plural sense. (The “antecedent” is what the later pronoun refers to.)

But whatever you choose to call it, this use of “they” and its other forms is so natural that even people who condemn it use it unconsciously themselves.

For instance, The Elements of Style, by E. B. White and William Strunk Jr., denounces the usage. But as Pullum has remarked, “when E. B. White got back to his own excellent writing he wrote lines like ‘But somebody taught you, didn’t they?’ ” (In White’s novel Charlotte’s Web, the very articulate Dr. Dorian speaks the line to Mrs. Arable.)

The linguist Geoff Nunberg has also written that “Everyone uses singular ‘they,’ whether they realize it or not.” He gives this example:

“In an engaging recent book called Between You & Me, the New Yorker‘s self-designated comma queen Mary Norris says that that use of ‘they’ is ‘just wrong.’ But flip back a few pages and you find her writing ‘Nobody wanted to think they were not essential.’ ”

The truth is that English has no better alternative—no generic, unisex singular pronoun. Nothing has ever filled the bill as satisfactorily as “they,” which no doubt explains its long and distinguished history.

For some 700 years, almost as long as “they” has been part of English, people have used it this way—even great writers. You can find it in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Austen, Byron, Eliot, Thackeray, Dickens, and too many others to mention.

The usage was considered normal until 18th-century grammarians decided that the use of “they,” a plural, was wrong with a technically singular antecedent.

Their solution was to use the singular “he” instead. They apparently felt it was better to be illogical with gender than with number.

But there was never any reason to avoid “they” in the first place. Those 18th-century fusspots should have left well enough alone.

Perhaps if they’d known more about the history of “they,” the pedants might have reconsidered.

This word is not native to English, which is unusual for a pronoun. “They” entered the language around 1200 or so, and most authorities trace it to early Scandinavian influences, probably Old Norse.

It may have been adopted, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, because the previous third-person plural pronoun, the Old English hi or hie, was easily confused with the singular forms he (“he”) and heo (the early form of “she”).

In earliest uses, “they” was clearly plural. The first written usage on record is from the Ormolum, a religious work written around 1200 or earlier by a monk named Orm or Ormin. Here’s the OED citation:

“& swa þeȝȝ leddenn heore lif Till þatt teȝȝ wærenn alde” (“And so they led their lives until they were old”). Oxford notes that the various spellings of “they” in early Middle English included both þeȝȝ and teȝȝ.

In the early 1300s, singular uses of “they” began showing up in what are called anaphoric references (that is, pointing to an antecedent). The OED explains that “they” in this sense meant the same thing as “he or she.”

Oxford defines the usage this way: “In anaphoric reference to a singular noun or pronoun of undetermined gender: he or she. Especially in relation to a noun phrase involving one of the indefinite determiners or pronouns any, each, every, no, some, anybody, anyone, etc.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is a use of the possessive form, “their,” in the sense of “his or her.” It’s from Cursor Mundi, an anonymous Middle English poem written sometime before 1325. Here “their” refers to the singular antecedent “either”:

“Bath ware made sun and mon, / Aiþer wit þer ouen light” (“Both were made sun and moon, / Either with their own light”).

The first OED example using “they” with a singular antecedent is from a Middle English poem, The Romance of William of Palerne (also known as William and the Werwolf), translated from French sometime between 1350 and 1375. Here “they” refers back to “each man”:

“þan hastely hiȝed eche wiȝt on hors & on fote, / huntyng wiȝt houndes alle heie wodes, / til þei neyȝþed so neiȝh to nymphe þe soþe, / þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere” (“Then quickly hastened each man on horse & on foot, / hunting with hounds all the high woods, / till they came nearly, to tell the truth, / to where William and his worthy dear friend were hiding together”). We’ve expanded the citation to include more of the context.

Soon afterward Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, used “they” in reference to the singular “whoso” (whatever person). This is from the “Prologue of the Pardoner’s Tale” (circa 1380s):

“And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, / They wol come up and offre a Goddés name” (“And whoso findeth him out of such blame, / They will come up and offer in God’s name”).

Since then, there’s been no looking back. As OED citations show, the singular use of “they” and “their” has been routine in written English—whether elevated or commonplace—since the late 1300s, and the singular use of “them” and “themselves” since the mid-1500s.

OED examples with indefinite pronouns are too numerous to mention. But there are also citations in which forms of “they” refer to indefinite nouns. We’ll quote just two:

“If … a psalme scape any person, or a lesson, or els yt they omyt one verse or twayne” (“If a psalm or a lesson escape any person, or else that they omit one or two verses”). This is from a religious treatise, William Bonde’s The Pylgrimage of Perfection, 1526.

“If a person is born of a … gloomy temper … they cannot help it.” The passage is from a letter written by Lord Chesterfield in 1759.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, notes that this use of “they” has “sometimes been considered erroneous,” though it doesn’t label the usage nonstandard.

The misguided objections of those 18th-century grammarians are still with us. But over the last five years, several news organizations, magazines, and book publishers have become more tolerant of the singular “they.”

Both the Associated Press and the Chicago Manual of Style, for example, announced new policies on “they” in March 2017. Both now allow “they” in reference to singular antecedents if a rewording would be awkward or clumsy.

One final point should be made. As many modern grammarians have noted, the singular use of “they” is not unprecedented in the history of English pronouns.

The second-person pronoun once had four principal forms in English—“thou” (singular subject), “thee” (singular object), “ye” (plural subject), and “you” (plural object). Yes, the pronoun “you” was originally a plural object, parallel to “them” in the third person.

Beginning in the mid-1200s, according to OED citations, the “you” form began to replace the others. By the late 1500s, “you” was serving all four purposes (though the old singulars live on in religious language).

The evolution of the singular “you” only slightly preceded that of the singular “they,” and nobody noticed at the time.

When the 18th century rolled along, no grammarians suggested that we return to “ye,” “thou,” and “thee,” because those words were no longer in common use.

It was the singular “they” that the pedants jumped on, because the singular “he” (later “he or she”) was available.

In summary, whatever you think of the singular “they” it’s here to stay, so our advice is to make peace with it.

If you can’t bring yourself to use “they” in this way, nobody’s forcing you. And it’s easy enough to avoid.

Simply use a plural noun with “they” instead of an indefinite pronoun. Instead of “Nobody eats kale because they like it,” you can write “People don’t eat kale because they like it.”

Just don’t think you must resort to clunky singular substitutes to avoid “they” and its sidekicks “them,” “their,” and “themselves.”

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