Singular 'They' (Grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Nordquist, Richard. "Singular 'They' (Grammar)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 25, 2017, thoughtco.com/singular-they-grammar-1691963. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 25). Singular 'They' (Grammar). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/singular-they-grammar-1691963 Nordquist, Richard. "Singular 'They' (Grammar)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/singular-they-grammar-1691963 (accessed October 19, 2017).
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In English grammar, singular "they" is the use of the pronoun they, them, or their to refer to a singular noun or to certain indefinite pronouns (such as anybody or everyone). Also called epicene "they" and unisex "they."

Though strict prescriptive grammarians regard the singular they as a grammatical error, it has been in widespread use for several centuries. Singular they appears in the writings of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Woolf, and many other major English authors.

In January 2016, the American Dialect Society chose the gender-neutral singular they as its Word of the Year: "They was recognized by the society for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she" (American Dialect Society press release, January 8, 2016).

Examples

  • "When a person talks too much, they learn little." (Duncan Hines, Lodging for a Night, 1938)
  • "If anybody wants their admission fee back, they can get it at the door." ("Fiddler's Dram." Spooky South: Tales of Hauntings, Strange Happenings, and Other Local Lore, retold by S. E. Schlosser. Globe Pequot, 2004)
  • "She admired the fullness of the dirty net curtains, opened every drawer and cupboard, and, when she found the Gideon's Bible, said, 'Somebody's left their book behind.'" (Sue Townsend, Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction. Lily Broadway Productions, 2004)
  • "She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes." (C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn-Treader, 1952)
  • "I know when I like a person directly I see them!" (Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out, 1915)
  • "'A person can't help their birth,' Rosalind replied with great liberality." (William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair, 1848)

    Singular They and Agreement

    "Examples of semantically singular they are given in [52]:

    [52i] Nobody in their right mind would do a thing like that.

    [52ii] Everyone has told me they think I made the right decision.

    [53iii] We need a manager who is reasonably flexible in their approach.

    [52iv] In that case the husband or the wife will have to give up their seat on the board.

    Notice that this special interpretation of they doesn't affect verb agreement: we have they think (3rd plural) in [ii], not *they thinks (3rd singular). Nonetheless, they can be interpreted as if it were 3rd person singular, with human denotation and unspecified gender." (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge University Press, 2005)

    The Growing Acceptance of Singular They

    "The general hesitancy of grammarians towards accepting singular they is not actually matched by many of their academic colleagues who have researched the usage and its distribution (e.g. Bodine 1075; Whitley 1978; Jochnowitz 1982; Abbot 1984; Wales 1984b). Nor indeed is it matched by the lay native speakers of standard English, who show an overwhelming preference for it in contemporary spoken English, non-formal written English and an ever-widening spread of non-formal written registers, from journalism to administration and academic writing.

    . . . Singular they, in fact, has been well established in informal usage for centuries; until prescriptive grammarians decreed it was grammatically 'incorrect,' and so outlawed it, effectively, from (public) written discourse. The OED and Jespersen (1914) reveal, for example, that right from the time of the introduction of the indefinite pronouns into the language in their present form in the Late Middle English period, the option involving they has been in common use." (Katie Wales, Personal Pronouns in Present-Day English. Cambridge University Press, 1996)

    "The Only Sensible Solution"

    "His or her is clumsy, especially upon repetition, and his is as inaccurate with respect to grammatical gender as they is to number. Invented alternatives never take hold. Singular they already exists; it has the advantage that most people already use it.

    "If it is as old as Chaucer, what's new? The Washington Post’s style editor, Bill Walsh, has called it 'the only sensible solution' to the gap in English’s pronouns, changing his newspaper's style book in 2015. But it was also the rise in the use of they as a pronoun for someone who does not want to use he or she. Facebook began already in 2014 allowing people to choose they as their preferred pronoun ('Wish them a happy birthday!'). Transgender stories, from The Danish Girl, a hit movie, to Caitlyn Jenner, an Olympic athlete who has become the world’s most famous trans woman, were big in 2015. But such people prefer their post-transition pronouns: he or she as desired. They is for a smaller minority who prefer neither. But the very idea of 'non-binary' language with regard to gender annoys and even angers many people.

    "In other words, as transgender people gain acceptance, 'non-binary' folks are the next frontier, like it or not. Who knew a thousand-year-old pronoun could be so controversial?" (Prospero, "Why 2015’s Word of the Year Is Rather Singular." The Economist, January 15, 2016)

    Origin of the Concept of the Gender-Neutral Masculine Pronoun

    "[I]t was [Ann] Fisher [author of A New Grammar, 1745] who promoted the convention of using he, him and his as pronouns to cover both male and female in general statements such as 'Everyone has his quirks.' To be precise, she says that 'The Masculine Person answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, Any person who knows what he says.' This idea caught on. . . . The convention was bolstered by an Act of Parliament in 1850: in order to simplify the language used in other Acts, it was decreed that the masculine pronoun be understood to include both males and females. The obvious objection to this--obvious now, even if it was not obvious then--is that it makes women politically invisible." (Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars: A History of Proper English. Macmillan, 2011)

    Also See

    Format
    mla apa chicago
    Your Citation
    Nordquist, Richard. "Singular 'They' (Grammar)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 25, 2017, thoughtco.com/singular-they-grammar-1691963. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 25). Singular 'They' (Grammar). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/singular-they-grammar-1691963 Nordquist, Richard. "Singular 'They' (Grammar)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/singular-they-grammar-1691963 (accessed October 19, 2017).