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.

41 Responses to Grammar and the Singular “They”

  1. Susan at StonyRiver September 21, 2009 at 9:14 am #

    Interesting about the history of the ‘singular they’, and its use by Shakespeare and Austen. I really enjoyed this article but must admit I still find this usage jarring for some reason, and never use it. And, whatever happened to “one’s”?

    So I would have answered your quotes with “When a spouse greets a partner with derision because of an opinion, what should the reaction be?” and “Everyone in the building attended the party and had a wonderful time.” Avoidance. lol

    Thanks again — I’m looking forward to a few conversations over this one.

  2. Lenore Buth September 21, 2009 at 11:22 am #

    Thank you, Steve, for digging into this. I’m working on another nonfiction book for moms. So often I write “they,” then change it to “his or her,” then to “s/he.” All the while I wonder which one will brand me as an unschooled hack. I agree, the “singular they” seems to be here to stay–and eliminates all that angst. Yet when I’m writing, my ear hears the traditionalother terms. Somehow it’s comforting to know that Shakespeare, etc., emmployed that terminology way back when.

  3. Daniel Smith September 21, 2009 at 11:43 am #

    How about using “the partner’s”, “the person’s” or simply “the” in the blank. It avoids all the problems.

    Using “the” is perhaps the best since the reaction will be assumed to refer to the partner anyway.

  4. Sonja Hutchinson September 22, 2009 at 9:32 am #

    It’d probably be easiest to re-write the sentence so you don’t have to worry about getting the pronoun wrong.

  5. Joel Q September 22, 2009 at 12:02 pm #

    Next to be accepted is “over” instead of “more than”

  6. Angela Townsend September 23, 2009 at 5:02 pm #

    I considered the singular “they” a serious grammatical error until I worked as a reporter for a local newspaper. The editor himself used “they” and “their” instead of “his or her.” I still can’t bring myself to use a plural pronoun to modify a singular subject. Written or spoken, the sentence just sounds wrong. I have on occasion used the archaic “he” when “his/her” is too awkward or distracting. Thanks for the discussion!

  7. Adam Heine September 24, 2009 at 2:54 am #

    I like this post. I prefer clarity and flow over grammatical correctness myself. (Though obviously I prefer to achieve all three!).

    In the first example, using ‘his’ puts the husband in my mind. A mild confusion, I admit, but potential confusion nonetheless. Whereas using ‘their’ produces no confusion. It communicates what is meant without resorting to the awkward ‘he or she’.

  8. Rosslyn October 1, 2009 at 7:26 am #

    I’m going to be a conscientious objector on this one. Though I have succumbed to using the singular “they” sometimes in spoken communication, I don’t like it. Not one bit. Language is a system, like math. I like the beauty and order of the system.

    Can’t we all just switch to “hir?” 🙂

  9. Christine H October 6, 2009 at 4:37 pm #

    I tend to use “his or her” when writing, but “they” when speaking.

    I find this much less troublesome than the common misuse of who/whom, or using “There’s” in reference to plural items.

    “There’s some cups on the table” just sends me into fits… and I even catch myself doing it! So I am constantly correcting myself and it goes like this…”There’s – there are – some cups on the table.”

    My fear is that my young son will think that “There’s there are” is the correct way to denote plural objects!

  10. Christine H October 6, 2009 at 4:39 pm #

    Oh, and “there’s” is so prevalent now that I hear celebrities and TV commentators use it all the time. I have even seen it in print in advertising for major companies.

    Same with who/whom.

  11. Karen Wingate December 8, 2009 at 2:25 pm #

    I agree with Susan and Sonia. When in doubt, rewrite.

  12. Janine Rosche October 9, 2017 at 3:33 am #

    For me, it depends on my audience. In a PhD course in education at a secular university, I learned quickly to default to “she” if stating an example of a child or teenager. As it was explained to me, “he” had been the default for long enough and “they” didn’t sound academic enough. This was a good read for me.

  13. Frank Ball October 9, 2017 at 5:20 am #

    Conceptually, I can’t see that the “singular they” is any different from using “you” as both singular and plural. Even so, whenever I can, I make the subject plural so “they” matches. The latest version of The Chicago Manual of Style has opened the door to “singular they” acceptability.

  14. Damon J. Gray October 9, 2017 at 5:43 am #

    This was almost a “Fun Friday” type of post. I am proud to be consistent in my inconsistency. For me, communication has to trump grammatical particularities. Even as I read through this post, I answered the first quote differently than the second.

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

    “Everyone in the building attended the party, and each had a wonderful time.”

    • Linda Riggs Mayfield October 9, 2017 at 10:03 am #

      Damon,
      You also said you answered “differently than” instead of “differently from.” Are you trying to open yet another can of worms?😀

  15. Andra M October 9, 2017 at 6:07 am #

    I agree with the above that restructuring the sentence is better than the “singular they.”

    For certain, however, I will at all costs avoid ze, zim, etc. Those are too made up and PC that will likely be considered offensive in six months, and by the same people who want us to use them now.

    Yeah, I’m cynical.

  16. Deb Santefort October 9, 2017 at 6:18 am #

    I’m all for “singular they” in dialogue but I would alter the syntax to avoid it in narration. I think it has no place in expository text. Bleck!

    PS The word nerd in me loved this post!

  17. Brennan S. McPherson October 9, 2017 at 6:34 am #

    Agreed with the rest that the sentence would best be recast to avoid the issue. Using “he” or “she” is inaccurate at best and bizarre at worst, regardless of any “sexism” issues. Using, “he or she” is bulky and imprecise, not to mention annoying to type out. The singular “they” trumps the others because it is at least not bizarre or inaccurate, and it is lean and clear–though arguably a tad bit imprecise still. The reason “grammar” exists is to ensure clarity of communication. We need to keep that central reason as a guide rather than let political motivations or personal preference commandeer the ship.

  18. Katie Powner October 9, 2017 at 7:15 am #

    When I was pregnant, I occasionally referred to my unborn baby as “they” because we didn’t know if it was a boy or girl, and invariably someone would say, “Oh, are you having twins?”

  19. Susan Wingate October 9, 2017 at 7:18 am #

    Although an important topic for “all things grammar,” I giggled to the end of this post. Thanks for the morning humor.

  20. Bob October 9, 2017 at 7:40 am #

    In the first “fill in the blank” what about using “the?”

    In the second situation near the end, delete the blank and let the sentence read “… and had a wonderful time.”

  21. Janet Ann Collins October 9, 2017 at 8:02 am #

    Our language already has a gender neutral pronoun, “it.” But we understand that to mean something inferior to humans so we don’t use it to replace the male and female pronouns. If we did so, all the conflict mentioned would be avoided.

  22. Joseph Bentz October 9, 2017 at 8:45 am #

    I vote in favor of the Singular They. I think it is long past time to accept it as grammatical. The other options are awkward, and we shouldn’t have to keep restructuring sentences simply to avoid this minor issue. The Singular They is almost universally used in speech, and written grammar eventually follows speech. Language is constantly changing. If we never allowed for change in language and grammar, we would all still be speaking and writing like characters in a Shakespeare play.

  23. Carol Ashby October 9, 2017 at 9:22 am #

    Let me throw a little more oil on the coals. “His or her” is more technically correct than “their” with a singular antecedent, but then one has to decide whether to use “his or her” or “her or his.” Is the first one sexist by putting the male term first, or is the second too blatantly feminist?

    Similarly, the he/she conundrum. Does one have to write out the “or,” or can one simplify by using the slash? I’ve also seen it written “s/he.”

    How about the choice between “one” and “you” when making a general statement instead of addressing a particular person?

    (It feels good to satisfy my contrarian urges by tossing in a few more worms today.)

    In my technical writing, I would never use the singular “they” or use the subjective “who” when the objective case “whom” is correct. With fiction, if I used who and whom correctly, it would too often sound stilted and off-putting to the reader. I’ve adopted a personal standard of using who instead of whom in the conversations and unspoken thoughts of most characters. If it’s a bit of narration, then I use the correct objective case. Not grammatically correct, but I’m leaning more toward reader appeal than literary elegance.

  24. Joyce K. Ellis October 9, 2017 at 10:03 am #

    OK, I can’t resist–since you indeed opened that proverbial can of worms–and are giving me a wide-open opportunity to plug my new book. In Write with Excellence 201, I wrote this:

    “If you put a singular antecedent and plural pronoun together in a sentence, you get a couple of gunslingers squaring off for a showdown. So choose the right pronoun to avoid bloodshed in the streets.
    Note that recent changes allow this conflict to exist in informal writing. Even the widely used 2011 NIV Bible revisions have accommodated this usage (e.g., ‘Each person [singular] is tempted when they [plural] are dragged away by their [plural] own evil desire and enticed’ (James 1:14).
    To be clear, CMoS 17 still encourages agreement in formal writing—our kind of writing—writing for publication. And once again I encourage writers to uphold this standard.”

    I also want to point out that if you learn other languages, such as Spanish, you will find that you must have “agreement” there as well. Interesting.

    As with many things in today’s culture, we can hardly turn around without offending someone. But there are other ways to handle this situation, and I’ll leave that teaser to encourage writers to get my book, Write with Excellence 201: a lighthearted guide to the serious matter of writing well–for Christian authors, editors, and students.

    Thanks for the open door to plug my book, Steve. 🙂

  25. Kristi Woods October 9, 2017 at 10:18 am #

    Here’s a hat tip to you, Steve. I like and use a singular “they” as well.

  26. Janet Ann Collins October 9, 2017 at 10:27 am #

    I agree with Joseph Benz. English is a living language and it’s a good thing that it keeps changing. We’ve assimilated words from so many languages we have the largest vocabulary of any, and who has the authority to enforce grammar rules?

  27. Beth Olsson October 9, 2017 at 10:53 am #

    Thank you for drawing attention to this issue. It feels weird to use “his” and exclude myself. Typing out “his or hers” all the time is too much. Writing the incorrect “they” used to sting a little. Then I realized that I say “they” and I think “they.” With one contemporary fiction manuscript to my name I definitely don’t claim to know what I’m doing! But what about my writer’s voice? This is how I talk and how I think. Shouldn’t it be how I write? Maybe I’ve got the voice thing wrong when it comes to grammar. But what about my characters? (I suppose this only applies to writers of fiction.) Shouldn’t the way a character thinks and speaks be left up to “them” and not the rules OR changes in language?

  28. Bette Nordberg October 9, 2017 at 10:57 am #

    “Everyone attended the party and had a wonderful time.” Case solved. When in doubt, choose the chicken’s way out!

  29. Carol Ashby October 9, 2017 at 11:23 am #

    Has anyone here read read Mark Twain’s essay, The Awful German Language? It was an appendix in his book, A Tramp Abroad, that he wrote in the 1880s. He uses he, she, and it to agree with the gender of the German noun, and it’s hilarious in parts.

    I wonder if native speakers of languages with gendered nouns stress on this like English speakers do. Anyone here care to comment on that?

  30. B.L. Jenkins October 9, 2017 at 1:34 pm #

    I use the “singular they” all the time, but often feel a little guilty about it as if it’s about being PC. Thanks for clarifying that it’s actually about writing clear, correct English.

  31. Diane Campbell October 9, 2017 at 3:56 pm #

    Like some others have mentioned, I’ve practiced avoidance when it was possible, but gave myself grace to use the singular they whenever other options felt odd or cumbersome. In so doing, I’ve occasionally encountered those who disagreed with its use. I guess I’ll have to live with their disapproval (trust me, it’s not keeping me up at night). This whole politically correct nonsense of zim, zir and zie seems utterly laughable to me, but then I’d have myself in hot water with a whole ‘nother group of folks. Ahh well; so be it.

  32. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D October 10, 2017 at 12:10 pm #

    Steve, if one of my students uses a single noun with a plural pronoun, I mark them down for it, political correctness aside.

  33. Sandra Lovelace October 13, 2017 at 5:38 am #

    Here’s one nation’s response to this pronoun problem – http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/03/27/395785965/he-she-or-hen-sweden-s-new-gender-neutral-pronoun

    • Beth Olsson October 13, 2017 at 5:47 am #

      I was thinking about this but didn’t mention it. My husband is from Sweden (ranked the most femenist country in the world by Time magazine in 2007, I believe). He’s not a fan of the newly introduced word. According to him few people actually use it. My thought, let the people develop their language instead of telling them which words to use. But that’s being very American.

  34. Michael Torres October 13, 2017 at 6:49 am #

    Thanks for highlighting this, Steve. What fascinates me about this discussion is the underlying reality–language is organic!

  35. Janet Ann Collins October 13, 2017 at 9:14 am #

    We already have a gender neutral pronoun in English, “it.” But somehow it seems to refer only to things that are subhuman, as it did in the phrases I just typed. I wonder if we can change “it” to include humans.

  36. Rich Bullock October 17, 2017 at 9:37 pm #

    Thanks. ‘Bout time.

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