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WordBird Tip: The Singular They

WordBird Tip: The Singular They

English speakers have long operated without a gender-neutral third person. In other languages, this is known as the “neuter,” and it can be used describe a person of undetermined gender. To get around this, it’s becoming increasingly acceptable to use the singular they.

How We Got By

In the past, English-speakers used “he” as the default. Throughout the twentieth century, this convention was increasingly challenged by feminists and those who advocated for more gender-neutral and inclusive language. While traditionalists argued that the singular he was meant to encompass everyone, we slowly began introducing alternatives such as “he or she,” and “s/he” to make our language more inclusive.
There’s an inherent problem with this: It’s clumsy, sloppy, wordy, and it looks horrible on the page. Some people began using “they” as a singular. “They” is the English plural third person, and it doesn’t convey gender. It’s neuter. And it works surprisingly well with a singular implication.
They went to the store.

 

They wrote the paper.

 

If they wish, they may decide to rewrite the paper themselves.

The Problem of They

Since the word is ostensibly plural, there’s two pitfalls here. The first is it could be understood as plural, referring to multiple people, unless it is specified beforehand: “The student may decide to rewrite the paper themselves.”
The other awkwardness, of course, is the confusion about how to conjugate the pronoun when it’s singular. Do we use “they is” or “they are”? Obviously, “they are” sounds more correct to English speakers, but if we would write the singular “he is” and “she is,” then why “they are”? And what about “themselves”? If we’re talking about only one person, wouldn’t that require the use of “self,” the singular—and thus “themself”?

The Right Way

The answer is doing what sounds correct. Using “they is” won’t win you any points on an essay. Despite its awkwardness and the potential confusion, the singular “they” has been gaining popularity and is becoming more and more acceptable in writerly circles, simply because it is more elegant than “she or he” or “s/he.” Other solutions, such as “hir” have also been promoted, but have failed to garner as much attention and use as the singular they. The Washington Post, for example, now accepts the singular they.

If Swedish can have a singular, gender-neutral third person, why can’t we?

The singular they, of course, isn’t the only solution. Some still use the increasingly outmoded s/he or he or she. Others vary their examples between “he” and “she.” Still others advocate the use of “one,” although this can have the unintended effect of sounding overly academic and formal. And a final solution proposes that we just ditch the singular altogether; instead of referring to “the reader,” we can simply assume there is a group of “readers.”

A Growing Consensus

All of these solutions have their strengths and weaknesses, so why is the singular they seemingly winning the popularity contest at this point? It breaks a lot of our grammar rules. You can see this in the difficulty of writing about “the new student of the twenty-first century: they are technologically inclined …”, which yields the awkward construction “the new student … are …”

(This issue can be resolved by writing about multiple students, rather than just one.)

But the singular they, often, sounds just as elegant as any of our other constructions: “I am meeting with the interviewer next week. They will ask me some questions.” This is definitely an improvement over “he or she.” Since the future tense is used, there’s no apparent conjugation error either.

Historical Precedent for the Singular They

Some people want to argue English doesn’t need a singular, gender-neutral noun for the third person. After all, we’ve gotten along without one forever now, haven’t we? Not necessarily. Old English, which was much more closely related to German, did have a singular, gender-neutral noun. It’s just that, much like the singular “thee” and “thou” were dropped in favor of using “ye” and “you” (and eventually just “you” for all purposes), we got rid of it.

If we got rid of it, doesn’t that mean we don’t need it? Maybe English has evolved past the point of requiring this kind of distinction. Except that we haven’t, as evidenced by our continuing argument about how to address the problem.

We’ve also been solving the problem by using “they” since, oh, the 1300s. Middle English speakers might not have had the singular, gender-neutral third person Old English speakers did, but they got around the problem. People in Chaucer’s day didn’t have any of this “he or she” bullcrap; they just bit the bullet and used “they” to mean a person of any gender.

If English speakers have been breaking the rules of grammar in this one specific way for something like 800 years, isn’t it time to just bite the bullet and say it’s acceptable?


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