In Praise of the Singular “They”

2015 was a ground-breaking year. At least in the very narrow field of gender-neutral pronouns. It was 2015 that the American Dialect society picked the singular “they” as their word of the year. The use of “they” to denote a single person, without specifying their gender (as “he” and “she” do), has become under increased scrutiny and, in some cases, criticism. Although it is by no means a new development in English, its use is said to be confusing and infuriating by detractors. However, seeing as there is existing precedent for moving pronouns from the plural to the singular, it is most likely that the singular “they” is only starting its rise.

Confusion and mayhem

The most common criticisms you come across when talking about the singular they are that it is a) confusing and b) completely unnecessary. English already has two perfectly good pronouns: he and she, to denote a person, so why bother with the unnecessarily confusing they. Or so the argument goes. Detractors point out that most of the time when you’re talking about a third person, you’re well aware of their gender, so there is no need to not use he/she and, in worse cases, they will only serve to obfuscate your point and make everything more difficult to grasp. Many also add that they is also just a terrible thing stylistically.

So, you’re left with a couple of choices: use the existing pronouns, use one or people, or rewrite the entire sentence to get rid of the mysterious subject. But whatever you do, don’t mess around with the hideous and confusing singular they.

Why singular, why now?

It’s possible that the use of this particular pronoun has gained more prominence with the ever-widening gender-spectrum. Being gender non-binary has only recently become “a thing” the wider public is aware of and it is with this movement that they is most often associated as the preferred (although not only) pronoun to denote a single individual. And so, they has come to take on a whole new (political) meaning, with all the baggage that comes with it.

But, moving away from the particularities of that particular segment, they as a singular pronoun already has centuries of prior usage, including by some of the greatest writers to ever have put pen (or quill) to paper in the English language. Jane Austen, George Bernard Shaw, Jonathan Swift, Lord Byron have all opted to use the dreaded pronoun instead of going for the alternative solutions.

And their decision is quite understandable. Take, for example, the sentence Someone left their keys at the bar. That is a perfectly fine and straightforward English sentence. Is there really confusion about whether we’re talking about one or several people? You could try to rewrite it to get rid of the person entirely: Keys were left at the bar but that simply isn’t how most people use language. When you don’t know the gender of the subject, they is simply an incredibly convenient way of working around that.

And yes, there will be people who will object to its use on supposedly grammatical grounds. But you shouldn’t listen to scolds clinging to their idea of immutable language and trying to claim the ungrammaticality of constructions they don’t like.

It’s your move

You should also keep in mind that a shift from plural to singular pronouns has already taken place in English and nobody seems to be complaining about the use of the singular you for some reason.

You has a had a long and complex history. In Old English, it actually started as an objective and was only used in the plural. Even much later, it was thee and thou that were the official singular pronouns and you remained plural. It then moved to cover formal singular use before ending as a catch-all for both formal and informal, singular and plural use.

Although, it’s fairly certain that while this shift was going on, there were plenty of language scolds also calling the use of a singular you “ear-hurting, eye-burning, soul-ravaging, mind-numbing syntactic folly”. Because unlike pronouns, some things never change.

Conclusion – They is a great non-gender-specific singular pronoun

So, we’ve seen that while the singular they has centuries of prior use, it is still protested on the grounds that it is ungrammatical or stylistically deplorable. It is important to remember, however, that grammar reflects usage, not the other way around, and styles change with time. While there is always something to annoy people about how language is used, we should instead focus on overcoming the inner flinch and accept they as what it is – an excellent non-gender-specific singular pronoun.