The Inevitability of the Singular ‘They’

The singular ‘they’ has been a hot topic of late. Last month the Washington Post style guide threw in the towel and accepted it, however tentatively. Then the American Dialect Society voted it the Word of the Year. Then it really hit the big time, being discussed here in last week’s Linky Friday post.

People have been using and promoting and condemning and generally bickering about the construction for years, but something is different now. The expansion of the usage has entered its late phase. There are three related usages that are normally combined in the discussion: (1) when the antecedent is syntactically singular but semantically plural; (2) when the antecedent is unambiguously singular, but not of a particular, definite individual (or one of unknown sex); and (3) when the antecedent is a definite individual of known sex. The first two usage are old, established features of English grammar, long predating any complaints raised about them. The third one is new.

In usage (1) the antecedent typically is an indefinite pronoun such as “everyone” or a noun modified an adjective such as “every”:

(1a) Every student took their seat.

“Every student” is syntactically singular, but usually refers to multiple students, giving it a plural feel. A sentence such as (1a) is unremarkable, and usually goes unnoticed except when a grammar peever is looking to make trouble. The grammar-peever’s approved version of this is

(1b) Every student took his seat.

Even apart from the issue of a mixed-sex classroom, this has the problem that we wonder whose seat it is they took, and didn’t it get awfully crowded with all those students in it? This leads frequently to the advice to recast the sentence to avoid the issue, often by making the antecedent plural:

(1c) All of the students took their seats.

This often works well enough. (1c) is clear and means the same thing, and is only slightly clunky. It doesn’t always work so well, but that isn’t really the point. Version 1a is perfectly natural English. The peevers are making trouble, and appeasing them offers no payoff other than shutting them up briefly.

Back before grammar peeving became trendy, this construction was used routinely by the best writers. Chaucer is the earliest known to have used it, and there are innumerable examples in the King James Bible. Here are a couple:

And the children of Israel did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses: so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward, every one after their families, according to the house of their fathers. Numbers 2:34.

Let nothing bee done through strife, or vaine glory, but in lowlinesse of minde let each esteeme other better then themselues. Philemon 2:3.

Jane Austen used this constantly. This example is from late in Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth Bennet tells Mr. Darcy

To be sure, you knew no actual good of me — but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.

And so on. This is standard English and has been since before Modern English existed.

I suspect, but cannot prove, that the second usage, with a singular but indefinite personal antecedent, derives from the first. The entry point for the first form is that a word like “everyone” feels plural, regardless of its syntactic number. Words like “every” also have an indefinite feel to them. When we talk about “every student” we might technically be discussing a discrete, finite set of known individuals, but step into that classroom and it feels like a mob of indistinct humanity. This sense of indefiniteness leads to the singular “they” being extended to an unambiguously singular but indefinite construction:

(2a) When I am introduced to someone new, I greet them.

The peever-approved form is

(2b) When I am introduced to someone new, I greet him.

This has the problem that “him” is, in other uses, specifically masculine. Presumably the speaker is occasionally introduced to women, and greets them, too. The claim is that “him” is used here in an extended, gender-neutral sense. This is implausible on its face, but even stipulating to the claim, it is an extension of the pronoun beyond its traditional grammatical limits–just like singular “they.” The strategies for avoiding this are either to use the old tactic of recasting the sentence in the plural:

(2c) When I am introduced to new people, I greet them.

or the newer, and awkward, tactic of an explicitly inclusive construction such as

(2d) When I am introduced to someone new, I greet him or her.

An important point that these strategies obscure is that this construction originally had nothing to do with gender inclusiveness. It is nearly as old as first form, and its early uses make clear that political correctness had nothing to do with it. From the King James Bible:

So likewise shall my heauenly Father doe also vnto you, if yee from your hearts forgiue not euery one his brother their trespasses. Matthew 18:35

The antecedent “his brother” is about as singular and as gender-specific as antecedents get, but it is indefinite: it isn’t discussion Fred’s brother Bob, but your brother, whoever you and he are. Hence it gets the “their trespasses.”

Here is another one, this time from Jane Austen’s Emma. Emma is speaking to Mr. Knightley, discussing Harriet Smith:

Who is in love with her? Who makes you their confidant?

It would be a racier novel were we to suppose that “their” was used to avoid being gender-specific. Sadly, this interpretation is not supported by the text. This singular “they” construction was used because the antecedent is indefinite, not because the antecedent is of unknown of flexible gender.

This is an important point to make. Critics of the singular ‘they’ sometimes see instances such as this and decry them as political correctness gone mad. They miss the point. Gender inclusivity is a feature of the construction, but not its origin or necessarily the reason it is used: it is used because it feels natural to many users of Standard English. Argue that this usage is simply a sop to the feminists and you have to explain why the King James translators felt the need.

Finally we get to the third version, when the antecedent is a definite person of known gender. This is new. Standard discussions from just a few years ago of the singular ‘they’ often included discussions of how it was not used in this way. Those crazy kids nowadays have extended the singular ‘they.’ The American Dialect Society in its press release states “They was recognized by the society for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person…” Just so. I don’t know of any formal investigation of the phenomenon, but anecdotally, the younger set (teens and twenties) use this form unconsciously. Here is an example I have seen:

(3) There was this boy in class, and they wouldn’t stop talking, so the teacher sent them to the office.

There is still some room here. Compare it with

(3a) Joe wouldn’t stop talking, so the teacher sent them to the office.

I’m not sure if those crazy kids are taking it quite that far, but that is the obvious direction things are heading.

This brings me to my one point of disagreement with the ADS press release. The rest of that sentence was “…often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.” The ADS is identifying modern understandings of gender as the point of the construction. This makes the same mistake as the peevers who complain about usage (2) being crazily PC when the gender is known. The point of usage (3) is not to accommodate situations were neither “he” nor “she” really apply. This accommodation is a feature of the usage, but in the real world people don’t stop and think about such things when choosing a pronoun. This is semi-automatic stuff that, the vast majority of the time, you don’t think about at all. People use this construction because, for them, this is an unremarkable feature of their idiolect.

I weaseled there about whether this is a feature of Standard English, but if it ain’t, it will be sooner rather than later. Hence the title of this piece. This is inevitable. All those creative proposed pronouns never had a chance. This might seem counter-intuitive. We adopt new words all the time. How did we ever get by without schadenfreude? How would a Democrat talk about the Trump campaign without it? The Anglophone world’s collective reaction upon discovering this Teutonic gem was celebration: we hadn’t realized that we needed this word, but in retrospect it filled a grievous gap in the language. So why not some new pronoun? The difference is that nouns and verbs and so forth are content words, and these are open sets. New nouns enter the language all the time, and old ones drop out. Pronouns and prepositions and the like are function words, and are closed sets. It is possible to sit down and make a list of every pronoun, and it isn’t even all that long a list. Function words only change slowly, and not due to some blog item that everyone thinks is brilliant. It is that semi-automatic stuff that you don’t usually think about. It is much easier to adapt an existing pronoun than to introduce a new once: hence the singular ‘they.’

For those with a lingering distaste for the singular ‘they,’ the same thing happened with the singular ‘you.’ “You” is the traditional second person plural pronoun. The singular form was “thou” (and its inflected forms). “You” got extended to niceties of social rank, as with the royal “We.” (Does the Queen use that still? Heck if I know. Perhaps on very formal occasions.) Use of “thou” gradually grew restricted to intimates and social inferiors, like the French “vous” and “tu” (which, not coincidentally, are cognates with “you” and “thou”.) Eventually it dropped out of use entirely from Standard English (though it survives in some dialects). People made much the same complaints as they do about singular ‘they.’ And yet we make do just fine. It is possible to come up with ambiguities that would be solved by using “thou,” but in practice this isn’t really a problem. So it will be with singular ‘they.’

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Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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41 thoughts on “The Inevitability of the Singular ‘They’

  1. Everything you say is spot on, and I appreciate the research you go into. Interesting about usage (3). I’ve probably encountered it, but it’s not something I’ve thought about or been struck by.

    I confess to being one of those grammar peeves who doesn’t like the singular “they,” however. The reason is, I don’t like to use plurals when I can use singulars.* That’s merely an aesthetic preference and nothing more, and it’s not justified, but it still bothers me. And to me, the singular “they” and the usage “him and her” are similarly awkward, so we might as well go with the singular “they.”**

    *Well, I guess I should’ve said, “I don’t like to use a plural when I can use a singular.”
    **Well, I guess I should’ve said “I might as well go with….”

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  2. I wonder if this phenomenon you describe in English has some sort of analogue with other Indo-European languages’ treatment of neutrals as plurals. My German isn’t too good, my Latin and Greek are pretty rusty–and my Sanskrit is non-existent–but I seem to recall that grammatically “neutral” nouns and articles get treated in special ways, usually when it comes to differentiating between nominative and accusative cases (neutrals tend not to make the distinction), but also when it comes to plurals, so that (at least in Greek, and maybe in Latin…I don’t think it applies to German at all), a plural noun sometimes takes a singular verb form if that noun is plural.

    That’s not the same thing as the singular “they,” but it seems that there’s a similarity of some sort. Or maybe not. Languages can be weird.

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    • IIRC, a lot of English grammar weirdity comes from some fun invasions of England wherein English reverted mostly to a peasant language, and then when — the French I think — got kicked back out, everyone had to relearn it from peasants. Being peasants, of course, it was terribly uncouth so someone bolted on a lot of Latin grammar rules (stealing from Latin was fine, as the other alternative the educated had was French which was unacceptable because of the previous invasion).

      Which fit very, very poorly.

      Which includes the lack of a genderless pronoun in the singular case.

      It’s been ages since Latin, but as I recall the pronouns lacked gender. He/she/it was the crude English approximation (now nouns had gender, yes, but that wasn’t quite the same). English approximates this with…titles, I suppose. “The spouse”, “the farmer”, “the police officer” — the usual language of gender neutral discussions. And, of course, with the universal “he” which was understood to also mean women, except when it didn’t.

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      • As I recall, the decline of full-blown gender in English (ie, different forms for “the”) began in the northern parts of the country during the period when many people were bilingual in both Old English and Old Norse. Both were gendered, but there were differences, and over enough time is was just simpler to use “the” in the mash-up of the two languages that emerged.

        I seem to recall reading that one of the linguistic myths about that period is that once the vikings had sailed up the river, killed off the lord of the manor, and moved in, the new lord discovered that he had to learn English so he could order the peasants about. But he didn’t bother with Old English gender and just used “the”. The peasants picked up the habit quickly because no one wants to make the new lord, who got his position by cutting off the old lord’s head, look bad.

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    • In German, I wouldn’t say neuter nouns get treated really more or less specially than masculine and feminine ones. That’s the only language I know that has masculine, feminine, and neuter grammatical gender, so I have no idea if German is exceptional or typical that way.

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      • You’re right, I was thinking more of the articles and adjectives, and those only in the singular accusative and nominative, which of course is different from what I’m claiming for ancient Greek and Latin. I do think it’s interesting, though, that neuter Latin nouns (and, I think ancient Greek neuter nouns) and neuter German articles both use the same form for the nominative and accusative. Maybe it’s only a coincidence.

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        • In German, the articles have a bunch of crossover – the feminine articles are also the same in nominative and accusative, and dative is the same between masculine and neuter – is there something similar going on in Greek or Latin?

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          • D’oh! I forgot about the feminine articles being the same in the nominative and accusative. Disregard whatever I said about them.

            As for Latin, my understanding is that it didn’t have articles, at least classical Latin didn’t, from what little I learned several years ago. Ancient Greek did have articles, and I believe they were mostly declined as nouns were.

            However….I’m speaking about things I know only a little. The only language besides English that I know pretty well is French, and even with French, I’m far from fluent.

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    • I know that for tamil, at least in the spoken variety, it is somewhat common for people to use the second person plural in place of the second person augmentative. It is still regarded as ungrammatical by official grammar standards. i.e. school essays can require you to write dialogue in a way that would get you laughed at if anyone actually talked that way. Imagine if the rules of english grammar still required you the use thou for second person singular even though no one outside of a period drama actually uses it anymore.

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  3. You (Richard) might recall what our old Usenet buddy James Nicoll said about the development of English:

    The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and riffle their pockets for new vocabulary.[

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      • No, just channeling his inner Mark Twain:

        An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech — not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each inclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which reinclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens: finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it — after which comes the VERB, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out — the writer shovels in “haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,” or words to that effect, and the monument is finished.

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  4. Function words only change slowly, and not due to some blog item that everyone thinks is brilliant. It is that semi-automatic stuff that you don’t usually think about. It is much easier to adapt an existing pronoun than to introduce a new once: hence the singular ‘they.’

    This. Language is a human construct, but not one that involves edicts from on high. It is largely an organic construct, with changes flowing from what the current & next generations find useful for communication.

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    • It is largely an organic construct, with changes flowing from what the current & next generations find useful for communication.

      Yes, generations. I heard a radio commercial the other day where the phrase “on accident” was used multiple times. That one made me crazy back when my kids started using it, but now I’ve just relaxed since it’s obviously inevitable. My wife will probably go to her grave trying to correct people who say it.

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  5. Et tu, Jane?

    …Though on the other hand, both of the Austen examples are of characters speaking, so can be taken as depictions of how her character would speak, not how Austen thought statements of the same type should be written. I’d like to see examples of how Henry James or, a different thing, his characters handled the problem.

    As for the King James examples, in two of the three passages from the Bible, the full context is very plural:

    And the children of Israel did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses: so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward, every one after their families, according to the house of their fathers.

    The “their” after “every one” is situated within a passage about the (plural, obviously) “children of Israel,” and is already marked by two “they”‘s and a “their” before we get to the “every one.”

    More generally, in English, much in usage has been regularized since the King James Bible and since Austen’s times: Using plural pronouns strictly to refer to plural antecedents is more modern and more scientific, and in (present-day Americanized) English partly compensates for a general lack of declensions and other syntactic mechanisms.

    In my own writing, I view each occurrence of these personal pronoun problems as an opportunity – for instance to situate a statement contextually: If I’m making an argument that I suspect may be upsetting to feminists or the gender-political avant-garde, I may deploy a female singular pronoun or even “ze” and “hir.” It I can come up with a version of “every/they” or “each/they” that I find particularly clumsy, I may use it precisely to underline how awkward I find it (even when used by some of the most influential and beloved writers of English).

    The change may be “inevitable” for accepted or “standard” diction, but formal or elegant diction will still, as ever, be typified by conscious choice on the level of the word, by imposition of one’s own authority where necessary or appropriate, and never by the desire to get along with or fade into the crowd in some theoretically defensible position. As for what the kids are doing, if you want to sound like a child, then I say, sure, talk like a child.

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