Grammar. It has adorned blackboards and whiteboards for decades. It has daunted students with the intricacies of its structure and its variances from that of spoken language.
The singular use of “they” and other traditionally third person plural pronouns is one such case of this variance. Take, for example, the sentence below.
Someone left ______ umbrella.
Vocally, people often fill in the blank with “their.” Someone left their umbrella. However, according to traditional grammar rules, this would be incorrect because someone is a singular indefinite pronoun, while their is a plural pronoun referring to several people. Instead, “his or her” or even “an” should be used. “They,” in singular use, fell out of favor in the 19th century, according to Dr. Erika Strandjord, assistant professor of English.
“Before then … Shakespeare used the singular “they,” Chaucer used the singular “they.” It’s not a new phenomenon,” Strandjord said. “But I think that we are kind of still in that sort of 19th century grammar-policing culture sometimes when maybe we should be a little more open.”
In the most recent update of its style guide, The Washington Post has included “they” as a singular option. This move expresses a growing acceptability of the singular use, Strandjord said.
The growing acceptance of the singular “they” has another facet as well: gender inclusion. For some, “they” has become a preferred gender pronoun, since the English language lacks a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.
According to Tatem DeBlieck, co-president of SAGA, the way people naturally use “they” when they do not know the gender of a person results in the use of “they” as a pronoun. “They” is also a term that people are already familiar with.
“There are a lot of different [pronouns] that you can find on the internet like ze/zim/zirs and stuff like that that are different, and I don’t think that people understand that as well as ‘they,’” DeBlieck said.
According to Erik Anderson, co-president of SAGA, many people who prefer to use “they” as their preferred pronoun do so to distance themselves from the gender binary of only male and female.
“People are starting to understand what non-binary genders are and that there are genders outside of the binary. So I think that as those become more integrated into society, it will be more common to use ‘they’ pronouns, or pronouns other than ‘she’ and ‘he,’” Anderson said.
People are free to identify however they wish and it is a matter of basic respect to address others based off of their preferred identity when interacting with them, Strandjord said.
“If someone has a preferred name, you would use that preferred name, even if that’s not their legal first name,” Strandjord said. “So if they have a preferred pronoun, I think that it is only polite to [call them by that].”
With her students, Strandjord tries to make it clear that she supports the use of the singular “they.” According to Strandjord, “they” allows for ease and concision in writing. It also expresses the continuing move away from the universal “he.”
The universal or inclusive “he” was once understood to mean a person of any gender. According to Dr. David Sprunger, professor of English, after the inclusive “he,” came the usage of “he or she” and its variants of “he/she” and “s/he.” When Sprunger started teaching composition in 1982 at the University of Kansas, the policy of the department was to use the inclusive “he.”
“We had a little hand out on how we could explain to students how “he” was meant to be inclusive, [and that people] should always expand it to mean any group in any potential,” Sprunger said.
Later, when Sprunger taught at the University of Illinois, the policy was to rewrite things to avoid having to use “they,” or “he or she.” Today, people worry less about the usage of “they,” and are allowing “they” to do two things, Sprunger said.
According to Sprunger, “you” is another historical example of a word that has had a dual function. “You” can refer to one person or, if one is talking to a group, it can refer to a group of people.
“Historically, English had two forms of ‘you’ … but we have collapsed those into one word, so why can’t we do that with ‘they’?” Sprunger said. “That’s the historical linguist’s argument, if you are a descriptivist and just want to let it all go.”
However, not everyone agrees with using “they” singularly, Strandjord said. Certain people may deem the usage as improper, which may reflect back on the writer.
“It’s good to develop that linguistic flexibility so that you know in what situations it is going to be acceptable for you to use it, and in what situations people might ding you for it,” Strandjord said. “And if you still choose to use it in that situation, then that’s your choice.”
There are ways to avoid using pronouns, Strandjord said. One can rewrite sentences to avoid the use. One can name someone by name. One can stick to more traditional pronouns.
On the opposite end, however, some people categorize use of “he or she” as an act of microaggression, according to Sprunger. The use suggests that there are only two genders.
“If you don’t identify clearly in one of those camps, you might feel that just saying “he or she” … undercuts your self-perception and your self-worth,” Sprunger said. “So some people think that ‘they’ is a way that you can avoid that potential issue.”
Whether avoided or embraced, the singular “they” is not something that can be ignored. Some may be against the use, some may be for it, and others may change their minds as the structures of grammar evolve. According to Sprunger in an email, when it comes to language change, he sympathizes with some famous lines from Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism”:
In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold,
Alike fantastic if too new or old:
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.
The singular “they” has been used for centuries, but the debate of its grammatical correctness is both new and ongoing. However, Strandjord sees the usage as a natural conclusion to the progression from the inclusive “he” to the intermediate step of “he or she” to a genderless “they.”
“I think that it is really interesting that we are debating something as simple as a pronoun,” Strandjord said. “I really love it that we care that much about language.”