Singular ‘they’: facts you can’t ignore

Quick tip: Singular they had been in existence long before its criticism by traditional grammarians.

Linguists and language experts have argued about the use of they as an epicene third-person singular pronoun over the years: while some find it ungrammatical, others see it as a solution to certain gender-sensitive issues in contemporary English.

Let’s analyse this discourse from the foundation.

Personal pronouns are he, she, him, her, they, them, we, us, you and it; he, she, him and her distinguish between male and female genders, but when we write about people generally, we tend to use he or he/she.

Examples:

  1. If a student is serious enough, he could pass any subject.
  2. When a child acts right, he or she should be rewarded.

Now, it is easier to use he multiple times in speech and writing, but repeating he or she is awkward. Consequently, a generic singular pronoun becomes necessary, hence the introduction of singular they and its other forms (them, their, themselves). This is to account for people generally, to talk about someone whose gender is neither male nor female or where gender is not important.

Meanwhile, grammarians who opposed singular they argued that it is a plural pronoun and should not be used with any singular form because that is simply against grammar rules. Thus, these ‘escape theories’ were put forward:

  • That he should be used because it is accepted everywhere and the concept is clear to everyone.

Examples:

  1. A journalist should not be biased because he is a professional investigator.
  2. “Someone wants to speak with you.” “What does he want?”

Note that the above sentences would sound quite awkward in some situations (e.g. not all journalists are male; you can’t use he for an unknown person).

That was the reason for another theory.

 

  • That he or she should be used as far as one doesn’t have to repeat it (how possible is this?)

Example:

  1. A child is not a dummy, he or she knows what happens around him or her. When he or she observes the behaviour of others, he or she tends to act like them. Thus, he or she…

I’m bored already!

Well, this theory didn’t work, so another was postulated.

 

  • That plural subjects should be used to avoid singular they.

Examples:

  1. Children are very sensitive to events around them, they observe everything with keen interest.
  2. Your chemistry teachers must be creative or else you won’t understand anything.

Note that this theory might be useful in the first example, but might not always be possible in the second if you are addressing a particular student who has a particular chemistry teacher or when you want to be quite specific with a singular subject. It won’t also work with indefinite pronouns such as anyone, everyone and anybody.

However, the fundamental question supporters of singular they put forward is: why do we accept singular you but not singular they? It is expedient to know that you was purely a plural pronoun until about 1700 when it replaced ‘thou’ as a singular personal pronoun. So why accept one and not the other?

For the record, these are some of the facts you need to know about singular they:

  1. It has been in use since the 14th century, preceding the grammarians who called for its proscription in the 18th century.
  2. It was used by renowned writers like William Makepeace Thackeray, Jane Austen, W.H. Auden, William Shakespeare, George Orwell, Sydney Smith and Geoffrey Chaucer.
  3. It has been the most widely accepted solution to the problems of sexist and male-oriented use of language.
  4. It is being used in both formal and informal speech and writing across the world.
  5. Language experts believe the ‘rule against it’ is losing its enforcers.
  6. American Dialect Society voted it as Word of the Year in 2015 and as Bill Walsh asserted, it is ‘the only sensible solution to English’s lack of gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.’

Examples in support of singular they:

  1. Every researcher looks forward to finding their spot among professionals.
  2. A politician must have an inscrutable face because they are better off that way.
  3. A student needs a role model, it helps them stay focused.
  4. Everyone who wants their neighbours to respect them should not misbehave.
  5. Anybody can fend for themselves.

Note that when you use singular they, the verb after it should be in plural form for number agreement (plural takes plural). Remember we say ‘you are’ not ‘you is’ even when it’s singular.

When all is said and done, the use of singular they has outweighed its prohibition, and as asserted by The Sun’s John E. McIntyre in Because I said so series, ‘resistance is futile’.

What do you think?

 

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