It’s Time to Embrace the Singular ‘They’

It’s Time to Embrace the Singular ‘They’
Photo: Josie Elias, Shutterstock
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Grammar snobs may shudder in disgust at this idea, but it’s time to normalise the use of they/them as singular pronouns. It’s 2021; no more of this “he or she, his or her” stuff.

It’s perfectly reasonable to use gender-neutral pronouns in casual conversation — both written and verbal — and as it turns out, it even makes perfect grammatical sense. Though the use of these words as plural pronouns is a hardwired trait, you won’t be defying traditional grammar convention if you decide to upend the rule.

You may, however, have to endure the righteous hand-wringing of certain grammar purists who insist you’re committing a horrible faux-pas. The only thing is, they’re the ones who are wrong.

‘They’ has been a singular pronoun for 600 years

We are taught from the moment we start speaking English that the word they is meant solely to describe a plural distinction. Nonsense. The oldest written example of the singular they emerged in the 14th century, when it was used in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf.

But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, they’s singular roots possibly stretch back even further.

Since forms may exist in speech long before they’re written down, it’s likely that singular they was common even before the late fourteenth century. That makes an old form even older.

The implication — that they has existed as a singular pronoun meant to identify anyone across the gender spectrum for about 600 years — should be evidence enough this isn’t an attempt to force a rule change. In fact, examples of the singular they abound throughout the history of literature.

As the BBC noted in 2019:

Examples of the singular “they” being used to describe someone features as early as 1386 in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and also in famous literary works like Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1599.

“They” and “them” were still being used by literary authors to describe people in the 17th Century too – including by Jane Austin in her 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice.

There’s even more examples, as Purdue University explains, running the gamut from Wycliffe’s 1382 translation of the Bible, to Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, in which the Bard writes:

“To strange sores, strangely they straine the cure”

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Grammar constantly evolves

You might gasp, but it remains true that the only constant in grammar and language is change. For example, the word you, almost universally thought of as singular in present day, evolved from a much more fluid stature where it readily applied as a plural for years.

As Oxford explains:

You functioned as a polite singular for centuries, but in the seventeenth century singular you replaced thou, thee, and thy, except for some dialect use. That change met with some resistance. In 1660, George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, wrote a whole book labelling anyone who used singular you an idiot or a fool. And eighteenth-century grammarians like Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray regularly tested students on thou as singular, you as plural, despite the fact that students used singular you when their teachers weren’t looking, and teachers used singular you when their students weren’t looking.

The usage of you evolved, which is to say, the current reorientation of pronouns in 2021 is normal. You might catch flack for defying certain style guides and grammar books, but it’s good to keep in mind that lexicons, for the most part, never stop changing.

Purdue University expounds on this:

Grammar shifts and changes over time; for instance, the clunky he or she that a singular they replaces is actually a fairly recent introduction into the language. Singular they has been used for a long time and is used in most casual situations; you probably do it yourself without realising it. We are simply witnessing a reorientation of the rule, mostly with the intention of including more people in language.

It’s also more inclusive

All of this is to say that using non-gendered pronouns is more inclusive, and it really doesn’t have to be such a big deal. More formal announcements made to groups can really benefit from this kind of thing. For example, when making an announcement like “employees should store personal items in his or her locker,” just say “their locker.” Or, when saying “the owner of the Blue Honda Civic must move his or her car,” just say “their car.”

In addition to accounting for the growing cohort of folks who don’t identify along the traditional gender paradigm, it just sounds way better. And, oh yeah, it’s also grammatically correct.

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