Q: You have defended the singular “they” when it applies to an unknown person of unknown gender. OK. But how about for a known person of unknown gender? A recent news article that said “they were fired” caused me to search back and forth to find who else was fired. A waste of time.
A: We have indeed defended the use of “they” in the singular for an unknown person—an individual usually represented by an indefinite pronoun (“someone,” “everybody,” “no one,” etc.). Some examples: “If anyone calls, they can reach me at home” … “Nobody expects their best friend to betray them” … “Everyone’s looking out for themselves.”
As we’ve said on the blog, this singular use of “they” and its forms (“them,” “their,” “themselves”) for an indefinite, unknown somebody-or-other is more than 700 years old.
You’re asking about a very different usage, one that we’ve also discussed. As we wrote in a later post, this singular “they” refers to a known person who doesn’t identify as either male or female and prefers “they” to “he” or “she.” Some examples: “Robin loves their new job as sales manager” … “Toby says they’ve become a vegetarian.”
This use of “they” for a known person who’s nonbinary and doesn’t conform to the usual gender distinctions is very recent, only about a decade old.
When we wrote about the nonbinary “they” three years ago, we noted that only one standard dictionary had recognized the usage. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language included (and still does) this definition within its entry for “they”: “Used as a singular personal pronoun for someone who does not identify as either male or female.”
American Heritage doesn’t label the usage as nonstandard but adds a cautionary note: “The recent use of singular they for a known person who identifies as neither male nor female remains controversial.”
Since then, a couple of other standard dictionaries have accepted the usage, but without reservation.
Merriam-Webster’s entry for “they” was updated in September 2019 to include this definition: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”
A British dictionary, Macmillan, now has a similar definition: “used as a singular pronoun by and about people who identify as non-binary.” Macmillan’s example: “The singer has come out as non-binary and asked to be addressed by the pronouns they/them.”
Neither dictionary has any kind of warning label or cautionary note. Other dictionaries, however, are more conservative on the subject, merely observing in usage notes that the nonbinary “they” is out there, but not including it among the standard definitions of “they.”
For instance, Dictionary.com (based on Random House Unabridged) says in a usage note that the use of “they” and its forms “to refer to a single clearly specified, known, or named person is uncommon and likely to be noticed and criticized. … Even so, use of they, their, and them is increasingly found in contexts where the antecedent is a gender-nonconforming individual or one who does not identify as male or female.”
And Lexico (the former Oxford Dictionaries Online) has this in a usage note: “In a more recent development, they is now being used to refer to specific individuals (as in Alex is bringing their laptop). Like the gender-neutral honorific Mx, the singular they is preferred by some individuals who identify as neither male nor female.”
The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, added the binary use of “they” and its forms in an October 2019 update.
This is now among the OED’s definitions of “they”: “Used with reference to a person whose sense of personal identity does not correspond to conventional sex and gender distinctions, and who has typically asked to be referred to as they (rather than as he or she).”
The dictionary’s earliest example is from a Twitter post (by @thebutchcaucus, July 11, 2009): “What about they/them/theirs? #genderqueer #pronouns.” Oxford also has two later citations:
“Asher thought they were the only nonbinary person at school until a couple weeks ago” (the Harvard-Westlake Chronicle, Los Angeles, Sept. 25, 2013).
“In 2016, they got a role on Orange Is the New Black as a wisecracking white supremacist” (from a profile of Asia Kate Dillon on the Cut, a blog published by New York magazine, June 3, 2019).
We agree with you that this usage can confuse a reader. When a writer uses “they” in an article, we’re sometimes left to wonder how many people are meant.
But a careful writer can overcome this problem. The use of “they” in that last OED citation (“they got a role”) is not confusing because it links the pronoun with a single role And elsewhere in the article, the author, Gabriella Paiella, took pains to be clear (“they’re arguably Hollywood’s most famous nonbinary actor, one whose star turn came on an unlikely television series”).
As we noted in our nonbinary “they” post, “Clarity is just as important as sensitivity. Be sure to make clear when ‘they’ refers to only one person and when it refers to several people.” We also noted that “when ‘they’ is the subject of a verb, the verb is always plural, even in reference to a single person: ‘Robin says they are coming to the lunch meeting, so order them a sandwich.’ ”