Writing Craft

Grammar and the Singular “They”

Yesterday I opened a can of worms. There were many worms in the can; some male and some female. I discovered that a few of the worms were married to each other. One couple was having a marital disagreement. They were arguing about grammar, of all things. The fight was about the proper use of gender pronouns. Here is the sentence under dispute:

“When a spouse greets a partner with derision because of an opinion, what should be ___ reaction?”

Fill in the blank. Should you use hishis or her, or their? This is a grammatical conundrum. Your choice will determine whether you will be categorized as “sexist,” “offensive,” “tiresome,” or “ungrammatical.”

Our vernacular has changed over the past years due to our sensitivity over the generic “he.” For some it is a matter of being politically correct. For others it is merely a way of being inclusive of both genders in their writing. In addition it can be simply a matter of using the common language of everyday speech.

There are some who wish to change all pronouns to be gender neutral, going from he/she to zie; from him/her to zim; from his/her to zir; from his/hers to zis; and himself/herself to zieself instead. But rather than debate that issue, let’s look at the use of the singular “they.”

So what is correct? I have polled a number of editors on this subject and find them equally divided. Some trained in journalism and others who are fierce copy-editors are vehemently opposed to the use of the “singular they.” Others claim to be more concerned about simple communication and lay the finer points of grammar aside. Yet even they are not unified on the usage. There is an entire website devoted to the issue as found in the writing of Jane Austen and other classic writers!

Rosalie Maggio, in her book The Nonsexist Word Finder (Beacon Press, 1989) speaks to the issue of gender inclusive language:

“Defenders of the convention most often claim that it is a point of grammar and certainly not intended to offend anyone. That it does in reality offend large numbers of people does not appear to sway some grammarians, nor does the fact that their recourse to the laws of language is on shaky ground. While he involves a disagreement in gender, singular they involves a disagreement in number [as in ‘to each his own’ and ‘to each their own’]. Eighteenth-century [male] grammarians decided that number was more important than gender, although the singular they had been in favor until that time.”

The plural pronoun has been used regularly for years. Few realize that some of the greatest writers in history utilized this method without criticism–Chaucer, Shakespeare, Swift, Goldsmith, Dickens, Fielding, Thackery, Byron, Austen, Orwell, Kipling, and even C.S. Lewis.

In 2015 the Singular They was named “Word of the Year” by American Dialect Society (a group of 200 linguists). Even the venerable Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (2017) now allows for its use.

Richard Lederer and Richard Downs, in their great book The Write Way wrote, “Let the word go out that anyone . . . their is destined to become good, idiomatic English. It already pervades the speech of educated Americans, and daily it grows more common in writing.” (page 161)

Members of the Copyediting-L e-mail list state, “‘They’ with a singular antecedent works well, because it’s already part of everyone’s vocabulary. Like the generic ‘he,’ it entails no new words, just a shift in semantics…[it] is just one item in the toolkit of those who wish to avoid using generic ‘he.’ It isn’t the only item, and it doesn’t fit every situation, but it is useful.” (http://atropos.c2.net/~srm/samples/net/celfaq.htm [link now broken])

My feeling is that it is entirely appropriate to use the “singular they.” We need to adjust, ever so slightly, to accommodate the changes in our language. While not succumbing to the landmine of being politically correct, I do believe that there are appropriate places to use “ungrammatical” words to effectively communicate to our readers.

Richard Lederer provided a wonderful exercise to illustrate the point. Fill in the blank in the following sentence: “Everyone in the building attended the party, and ___ had a wonderful time.” I suspect that nearly everyone supplied the word they.

For a nice, but not definitive, introduction to the subject visit the Wikipedia entry for this topic.

And please note that I am NOT a grammar expert by any means. Heaven forbid I get that much credit. While I am an advocate of great writing and proper use of the English language I am also an advocate of communication. And communication has a tendency to adapt over time, the written word is no exception.

Adapted and abridged from an article called “Opening a Can of Worms” in The Advanced Christian Writer, June 1998. Previous blog version posted September 21, 2009.

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