“In the past year, new expressions of gender identity have generated a deal of discussion, and singular they has become a particularly significant element of that conversation. While many novel gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, they has the advantage of already being part of the language.”
— Ben Zimmer, the chairman of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, discussing the group's decision to make the singular "they" its word of the year. The vote favored they in part because of they's increasing importance as a way to make room for people who don't fit a predefined gender binary. (It helps that the word drops the added complication of "he or she.")
Is the singular "they" a problem that linguists created for themselves?
For some word purists, the singular they is the linguistic equivalent of an ingrown hair, but for others, the solutions for getting around the problem are way messier.
For centuries, the singular they was not only accepted by the public but by some of our most famous authors—Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Austen, and Shakespeare, just to name three.
But around the late 18th and early 19th century, something happened: Critics of the specific usage appeared. The reason for this critical reassessment came about partly out of prescriptive vibes around the English language at the time. Long story short: We wanted English to be more like Latin, and that meant rethinking the use of plural nouns in singular contexts.
In 1975, researcher Ann Bodine broke this down in a landmark paper, Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar: Singular ‘They,’ Sex-Indefinite ‘He,’ and ‘He or She’. The text, republished in the 1999 book The Feminist Critique of Language, notes that the influence of Latin grammar played an important role in the increase of rules around modern grammar—and specifically gave the world the "generic he," a term that followed Latin form but didn't mesh with modern concerns about gender equality. She added that the then-recent attempts to ditch the generic he were really attempts to roll back a controversial change.
"Intentionally or not, the movement against sex-indefinite 'he' is actually a counter-reaction to an attempt by prescriptive grammarians to alter the language," she wrote.
And many of those grammarians who tried to remedy the problem caused by this attempt to make English more like Latin have been tried to patch things up. For hundreds of years, English-speakers have tried to invent words that fill the English language's most unsightly gap. Nearly all of them have failed.
University of Illinois professor Dennis Baron, a longtime supporter of the singular they, has long maintained a list of gender-neutral pronouns that people have attempted to add to the English language, the most recent example from 2015, but most of the interesting ones from the 19th century. Terms like "thon," "e," and "um" were among the most prominent attempts to improve the language. Additionally, Baron notes, people complaining about the common use of the singular they were fairly common during the 19th century.
"If only occasionally found in the best writings, it is because the proofreader interposes his correction before the sentence reaches the public, for every editor [knows] how often even careful writers make the mistake," a writer for the Findlay, Ohio Jeffersonian wrote in 1877.
Baron, in introducing the concept in an essay, is quick to stick a knife in its heart before it even had a chance to fly:
These pronouns fill a need, but none has been widely adopted, hence they are the words that failed. What has succeeded is singular they, which arose naturally in English hundreds of years ago, and is used both by speakers and writers concerned that their pronouns be inclusive, and also by many who don’t give the matter much thought at all.
Over at the dearly departed site The Toast, linguist Gretchen McCulloch calls the root cause "a series of historical accidents," but suggests that the issues raised by grammarians are practical in nature, even if the solutions are in many ways worse than the problems in the first place.
It's an empty space for a broken term, but who broke it?
Five language-world stances on the singular "they"
- "The fact that the masculine is the unmarked gender in English (or that the feminine is unmarked in the language of the Tunica Indians) is simply a feature of grammar." — A 1971 open letter in the Harvard Crimson, signed by 17 professors and teaching fellows, attempting to defend the use of gendered pronouns in the classroom, using history as a precedent for the thought process.
- "From long habit, in any case, epicene he is comfortably read as 'he or she' without much extra thought: 'If a customer has a coupon, he can get a free ice cream cone' would not be interpreted by any literate person as limiting the deal to males." — Iohannes Helonapë, a.k.a. "The Ozarks Latinist," making the case for the "generic he" from the perspective of a Latin teacher.
- "Using "their" for singular antecedents is one that I think people need to [just give into]. As I've argued, it only occurs in a very limited set of circumstances, and those circumstances very unlikely to produce confusion about what is meant." — blogger and academic Freddie deBoer, discussing the limited use casesof the singular their.
- "Saying that singular they has been used for centuries by respected writers, that it appears to follow fairly well-defined rules, and that the proscription against it is not based in linguistic fact is descriptive; saying that people need to get over their dislike and accept it is not." — Linguist Jonathan Owen, who attempts to straddle the line between prescriptivism and descriptivism in this 2015 blog post offering both sides of the singular they debate.
- "Many ACES stalwarts—copy editors, journalists, grammarians, lexicographers, and linguists—stand ready to embrace the singular 'their.' But not us. We avoid it whenever we can." — Mary Norris, the "comma queen" at The New Yorker, emphasizing the magazine's hard-line stance against the singular they. The linguistics blog Language Log had a field day with this comment.
The number of languages tracked by the World Atlas of Language Structures Online that do not make gender distinctions in their pronouns. Of the 378 examples listed on the atlas' website, roughly two-thirds, or 67 percent, have no gender distinctions at all for their pronouns, and those that do, like English, are most likely to use third-person singular pronouns along gender lines.
The real solution to the singular "they" problem lies in the hands of copy editors
Last year, prominent Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh (who was not a football coach for the San Francisco 49ers) drew a line in the sand in favor of the singular they, last year revealing in a deeply nerve-wracking blog post that he had been wanting to make the big change for years, despite how divisive it was for some.
"What finally pushed me from acceptance to action on gender-neutral pronouns was the increasing visibility of gender-neutral people," he wrote.
Problem is, it won't be easy to win over everyone else in the journalism world. The issue is that many copy editors simply struggle with the conundrum that the word creates, some treating it as a pet peeve even though it's common in regular speech.
In a blog post last year, The Baltimore Sun's John E. McIntyre noted the lingering controversy, citing one Facebook feed that called the singular they an "idiot epicene."
"I know any number of editors who share this visceral dislike of the singular they," McIntyre wrote. "It cuts no ice with them that linguists have demonstrated widespread use by reputable writers for centuries … or that we somehow contrive to use you in both singular and plural senses without growing red-faced and shouting."
Copy editors may never find peace on this issue, even though the American Copy Editors Society has been laying the groundwork for such a change, last January noting with positivity the American Dialect Society's move to make the singular they its word of the year.
Eventually, the Associated Press Stylebook will make a call on this grammatical controversy, like they did when it decided to allow “more than” and “over” to be used interchangeably. But I wonder to myself if they'll be the last ones to figure out that most non-journalists are pro-they.
(Hey, at least this piece isn't about the Oxford comma.)
Perhaps the most interesting comment on this whole issue, among the many items and eras I've quoted in this piece, comes not from a vintage study or an old academic paper, but from a Christian Science Monitor columnist who literally wrote about this very issue last week.
Ruth Walker, the writer of the publication's Verbal Energy feature, makes an astute comparison between grammar and "desire lines"—the pathways that people create on their own when the sidewalks prove inefficient paths.
Walker isn't exactly psyched about the singular they right now, but she sees the case for it going forward.
"Whatever the motivation, and however we feel about it, singular they is a kind of shortcut through the traditional grammar rules that is coming to be more accepted all the time," she wrote. "It’s like that shortcut at the library—which rejoins the main path, and may someday get paved."
The tide is turning on this terminology. Whoever is getting in the way of its progress, they should stop.
Clarification: A prior version of this story misinterpreted blogger Freddie deBoer's stance on the singular they due to a phrasing error in the essay. This post has been updated to reflect the author's original intent.