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May 1, 1998

they (singular)

Neil deMause writes:
As a sometime copy editor, I know that there's no better way to start a fistfight among my colleagues than by bringing up the use of "they" as a non-gender-specific singular pronoun (i.e., "If you have a lawyer, ask them what they think of it"). Next time I have a boss who says singular "they" is just plain wrong, how can I convince them otherwise?

You probably can't, because people who form strong opinions on such issues will rarely be convinced by evidence, no matter how extensive or persuasive.

The word they, along with its oblique forms their and them, is regarded by the "standard" rules of grammar as a third-person plural pronoun. Nevertheless, the word has been used since the fourteenth century to refer to singular subjects, or to indefinite prounouns (which are usually considered singular).

There are several motivations for this. In the case of the indefinite pronouns, such as anyone, everyone, somebody, or whoever, we see what is called notional concord or notional agreement, where these pronouns, though grammatically singular, often have a plural reference, and so can take plural pronouns. The idea of notional concord also applies to examples with more clearly singular subjects, as in both Shakespeare examples and the Thackeray example cited below.

A second reason, of increasing importance, is the lack of a common-gender third-person singular pronoun in English. That is, he or she specifies the sex of the referent, and it is not used of people, so there's no easy way to construct certain sentences without implying a sex or resorting to circumlocution. Though he, him, and his have often been used to refer to either sex, many people feel--with justification--that they primarily refer to men, and are inappropriate when a woman could be the referent. The use of they as a singular eliminates this problem and obviates the need to use the awkward "him or her" or some other solution.

With many usage issues, one can argue in favor of a disputed form by noting that it has some value, and is occasionally found in the works of major writers. With this issue, however, its usefulness is strongly reinfoced by its extreme frequency in the works of a vast number of writers over many centuries. This is not an occasional or isolated use. A moderate number of examples from our Great Writers: "Now this king did keep a great house, that every body might come and take their meat freely" (Sir Philip Sydney, Arcadia); "There's not a man I meet but doth salute me,/As if I were their well-acquainted friend" (Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors); "Some more audience than a mother,/Since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear/The speech" (Shakespeare, Hamlet); "If ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their tresspasses..." (King James Bible, Matthew 18:35); "Who is in love with her? Who makes you their confidant?" (Jane Austen, Emma); "A person can't help their birth" (Thackeray, Vanity Fair); "'If everybody minded their own business,' the Duchess said in a hoarse growl, 'the world would go round a deal faster than it does'"("Lewis Carroll," Alice's Adventures in Wonderland); "No man goes to battle to be killed.--But they do get killed" (George Bernard Shaw, Three Plays for Puritans); "He's one of those guys who's always patting themself on the back" (J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye); "I had to decide: Is this person being irrational or is he right? Of course, they were often right" (Robert Burchfield, former Editor in Chief of the Oxford English dictionaries).

Objections to singular they began with the grammarians of the late eighteenth century, by which point it had been in frequent use for four hundred years. The form is extremely common today, especially in informal use, and especially as a sex-neutral pronoun, for which we have a real need in English. (The subject of epicene, or gender-neutral, pronouns, is a fascinating one; since the mid-nineteenth century there have been many attempts to coin epicene pronouns, but none has caught on. But that's an issue for another day.) Many people still object to singular they on the basis of its presumably plural grammatical status, but you're in very good company if you use it.

It's also worth mentioning a parallel to those who claim that they is somehow "diluted" by being pressed into service as a singular: the status of the second-person pronouns. English used to have separate pronouns in the second person for singular (thou, thy, thee) and plural (you, your, you). For various reasons, the singular forms dropped out of use and the plural took over. If you're going to complain about singular they, why not complain about the complete loss of singular thou, a real loss for the language?

There is a large body of literature on this issue; two easily accessible sources are Henry Churchyard's singular "their" page and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, from both of which many of these examples were taken.

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