Everyone knows that in English, third-person singular pronouns are “he,” “she,” “one” and “it.”
We’ve moved past the notion that the male pronouns can stand in for all humans. But that leaves us with constructions like the one below, right?
“Everyone should take his or her books.”
Well, actually, no.
If you do some digging into the history of English usage, you’ll discover that the rule about male pronouns being used to stand in for male and female was an invention of Victorian grammarians. And that it used to be common to use “they” when referring to a person whose gender you didn’t know.
As James Harbeck points out in his blog post called “they”, “… for centuries, English speakers used ‘they’ for gender-indeterminate third person singular, and no one complained.” Even Shakespeare used it.
Things changed in the 1700s
Harbeck goes into a bit of detail, if you want to read more about how this imposed rule came about. Not surprisingly, it was influenced by beliefs, not by speaking and writing patterns that people commonly use.
But singular “they” has stood its ground
In fact, the singular “they” now has 2 uses:
- One is for referring to people when you’re not sure of their gender and you don’t want to use “he”
- The other is for referring to people who don’t identify with “he” or “she” as a gender
There are some fancy names for the two uses, but they can be hard to remember, especially if you aren’t into that aspect of grammar.
Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist, sums it up nicely, saying that the two types of singular “they” are specific and nonspecific. She gave examples in a tweet, quoted below:
“Nonspecific singular they: ‘someone left their umbrella’
Specific singular they: ‘Alex left their umbrella’"
Here’s what people are doing now
The “rule” that “they” can’t be used in the singular is deeply rooted in people’s minds. So are editors, linguists and style guides saying anything about it? Yes, they are, and they’re certainly saying a lot.
It’s been a hot topic among language professionals for a few years, and it really peaked in 2017. Here are three of the most significant announcements.
- The American Dialect Society declared the singular “they” its Word of the Year in 2015
- As of May 2017, the Associated Press allows “they” as a singular pronoun when a writer is referring to people who don’t use gendered pronouns
- The new edition of the Chicago Manual of Style will also allow it in some cases
- “They” as a substitute for the generic “he”: recommends avoiding it
- “They” to refer to a specific person: allows the use of “they” to refer to “a specific, known person who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun such as ‘he’ or ‘she’”
The Associated Press and Chicago Manual of Style positions are more conservative than what many editors are recommending, as shown by discussions in various online communities of practice. Many editors are encouraging both uses of the singular “they.”
But it looks funny
You’ll run into people who say that it’s incorrect or it looks funny or they don’t like it. No one is saying we have to use it. But saying someone can’t or shouldn’t use it is wrong.
Read up on the history of the singular “they” and the discussions language professionals are having about it so that you can decide what you’ll do (and what you’ll say to people who still say it’s wrong to use). I’ve compiled the following list:
And if you’ve found any other resources on the topic, feel free to share them in the comments below.