One Word: The Singular They

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Glad tidings! English now has a third-person pronoun that is both singular and gender-neutral.

Best of all, it’s grammatically correct, according to all the best authorities we need to heed.

It’s a pronoun we’ve always had – and used. For centuries it was universally accepted. For a while it fell out of favor in formal writing (though most people continued using it in colloquial speech). Now it’s back – apparently for good.

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I’m referring to the singular “they” (along with variants like “their” and “them”) in sentences like:

“If anyone has parked their car in the fire lane, they should move it.”

Let me say again: In proper, formal, modern English, as well as in the everyday vernacular – the singular they is correct.

You’ve heard that this way of saying things is “wrong”. You probably were taught that in school. The folks who told you this certainly meant well – and when they said it, they may have been sorta-kinda right. But things have changed.

The use of “they” as a gender-neutral, singular, third-person pronoun is now officially accepted by the Oxford dictionaries, the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the Random House dictionary, Fowler’s, and many other authoritative lexicons and style guides (such as the Associated Press Stylesheet and the Chicago Manual of Style).

This usage also now dominates the choicest, most strict academic and literary publications on both sides of the Atlantic.

It made its inroads gradually, with little fanfare, while I wasn’t paying attention. I’m as startled as anyone. I’m also ecstatic: What took “them” so long?

Why We Need It

In elementary school, I was taught to write: “If anyone has parked his car in the fire lane, he should move it.” Pronouns such as “he” and “his” (the lesson continued) could be taken in context as gender-indeterminate – as meaning “he and she”, “his and hers”.

This never felt right. I’ve used this wording, and even defended it. But I also understood why my women friends and relatives resented a vocabulary clearly designed in an era when only males were seen as worthy of mention.

Well, then (the advice went), if that matters to you, just spell out both genders: “If anyone has parked his or her car in the fire lane, he or she should move it.” Sure! Trying to do this consistently leads to all sorts of convoluted constructions. This isn’t a real solution.

A better answer was to “write around” the problem: “If people have parked their cars in the fire lane, they should move them.” Not too bad. I’ve done a lot of writing around, and will probably continue. But it doesn’t always work. In this case (for example), what if the announcer is getting funny looks because everyone knows only one car at a time can block this particular fire lane?

There’s “he/she” and “s/he” and other constructions, each weirder and more awkward than the last. More recently, various groups advocate newly invented pronoun sets including “ne/nem/nir/nirs/nemself”, as well as others beginning with “z”, “x”, “v”, and “e”. While these all strike me as ingenious, I can’t see any of them gaining the required critical mass.

What these inventions do show is how desperate many speakers and writers have been to fill this gap. English needs a singular, third-person, gender-neutral pronoun.

Now it has one! The very one it’s always had, but only now is starting to acknowledge. Let’s see how this works.

The Royal We

Kings and queens sometimes say things like, “We will attend the peace conference Ourself, instead of merely sending Our envoy.” Such uses of “we”, “our”, “ourself”, and the like are called the “royal we”.

There are two ideas behind this stately, ultra-formal usage:

First, it sometimes reminded subjects of the “divine right of kings” (and queens). In other words, saying “We” was a way of saying “God and I”.

A second, less grandiose rationale is that a monarch symbolizes the entire nation, acting as the embodiment and representative of its populace. Speaking in this capacity, the pronoun “we” in place of “I” makes sense. However, it’s still being used in the singular, as the traditional “ourself” shows.

“We” isn’t just used this way in regard to royalty. There are such things as the “editorial we”, the “author’s we”, the “non-confrontative we”, and the “patronizing we”, perhaps among others. I’ve seen and heard it used by ordinary individuals for the purpose of being self-effacing – not wanting to sound egotistical by harping continuously on “I”.

There also is a somewhat opposite usage called the “plural I”. Examples might be Helen Reddy’s song “I Am Woman” (where she speaks as EveryWoman) and Walt Whitman’s “I am large, I contain multitudes”.

Now consider this wording: “If a monarch wants to call themself ‘we’, they can do it. Who am I to stop them?”

My point is that using “they”, “their”, “them”, “themselves” and the like as singular pronouns is no more illogical than using “we”, “our”, “us”, and “ourself” that way. Perhaps the answer isn’t to reject this construction out of hand; it’s simply to let ourselves get used to it.

The History of They

From the early 16th century, till the mid-18th, the use of “they” in referring to a single person of indeterminate sex was universally accepted. It is taken for granted by Shakespeare, by the translators of the King James Bible, by Henry Fielding, and many others.

More recent writers to favor it include Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, and other literary lights. During the 18th century’s second half, however, English entered an uptight period during which “rules” – imposed more or less arbitrarily by grammar police – overshadowed usage. Formal writing became more self-consciously formal; academic writing, more academic.

Useful though it was, the singular they became frowned upon by those in power. It didn’t help that those in power were almost always male, and thus saw nothing wrong with the sexist terminology that took over instead.

Guess what? That era is ending. Perhaps it already ended. If so, it did so sometime during the past seven to 10 years. That’s the period during which the singular they gained so much ground that it’s now considered unstoppable (even by laggard authorities not quite yet ready to welcome it with open arms).

While I could (as noted above) cite copious endorsements, let me quote just one: The editors of the Oxford dictionaries write that “in view of the growing acceptance of they and its obvious practical advantages, they is used in this dictionary in many cases where he would have been used formerly.”

What else can we say? If someone wants to argue with that, then they are, in my opinion, on the wrong side of history.

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)


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