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.
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