If you hang out with any­one who’s a gram­mar snob, you’ve prob­a­bly heard them cor­rect some­one using “they” as a sin­gu­lar pro­noun.

I was actu­al­ly doing some research on this usage recent­ly, and I dis­cov­ered some inter­est­ing tid­bits.

For exam­ple, in Stephen Har­rod Buhner’s Ensoul­ing Lan­guage, we read the fol­low­ing on page 358:

While the uni­ver­sal he did enjoy about a cen­tu­ry of pri­ma­ry use, the use of the sin­gu­lar they has been in com­mon use since the thir­teenth cen­tu­ry, a much longer dura­tion. For much of that time, it was the term of choice for a uni­ver­sal pro­noun. (Inter­est­ing­ly enough, some writ­ers in the eigh­teenth and nine­teenth cen­turies refused to ever use the uni­ver­sal he, believ­ing it too sex­ist. They were shout­ed down by the manda­to­ry school reform­ers.) The con­tro­ver­sy over sin­gu­lar they is exact­ly the same as that over split infini­tives. The prob­lem is human cre­at­ed, not inher­ent in usage.

So, that’s inter­est­ing. The use of “they” as a sin­gu­lar pro­noun isn’t a recent prac­tice; it’s been around for over 700 years. In fact, accord­ing to Wikipedia, many respect­ed clas­si­cal authors have used “they” as a sin­gu­lar pro­noun, includ­ing the fol­low­ing:

  • Geof­frey Chaucer in The Pardoner’s Pro­logue (1395)
  • William Shake­speare in Ham­let (1599)
  • Jane Austen in Mans­field Park (1814)
  • George Bernard Shaw in Cae­sar and Cleopa­tra (1901)

Some­thing else I dis­cov­ered is that com­mon style guides are not unan­i­mous in their approach to this usage.

Chica­go sup­ports it, for exam­ple:

The sin­gu­lar they. A sin­gu­lar antecedent requires a sin­gu­lar ref­er­ent pro­noun. Because he is no longer accept­ed as a gener­ic pro­noun refer­ring to a per­son of either sex, it has become com­mon in speech and in infor­mal writ­ing to sub­sti­tute the third-per­son plur­al pro­nouns they, them, their, and them­selves, and the non­stan­dard sin­gu­lar them­self. While this usage is accept­ed in casu­al con­text, it is still con­sid­ered ungram­mat­i­cal in for­mal writ­ing.” (The Chica­go Man­u­al of Style, 16th edi­tion, §5.46)

while APA rejects it:

A pro­noun must agree in num­ber (i.e. sin­gu­lar or plur­al) with the noun it replaces.

Cor­rect: Nei­ther the high­est scor­er nor the low­est scor­er in the group had any doubt about his or her com­pe­tence.

Incor­rect: Nei­ther the high­est scor­er nor the low­est scor­er in the group had any doubt about their com­pe­tence.” (Pub­li­ca­tion Man­u­al of the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion, 6th Edi­tion. p. 79)

My point, I sup­pose, with men­tion­ing all of this is that if you are a pro­po­nent of using “they” as a sin­gu­lar pro­noun that isn’t gen­dered, you have some fair­ly strong sup­port for that posi­tion.

That being said, the camp against using “they” as a sin­gu­lar pro­noun is pret­ty vocal and strong, so tread light­ly.

About Kim Siever

I am a copy­writer and copy­ed­i­tor. I blog on writ­ing tips most­ly, but I some­times throw in my thoughts about run­ning a small busi­ness.

Fol­low me on Twit­ter at @hotpepper.

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