Grammar Changes: The Singular They

The Elements of StyleLanguage changes with the times, even grammar.

I attended college during the second wave of feminism, when incorporating non-sexist terms into every day usage was an important demonstration of inclusiveness. In addition to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, we consulted Miller and Swift’s The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, and we learned to replace the word man with the word human when we meant all people.

This was the era when the honorific Ms. entered the language. The thinking was that women should be able to be in the world without reference to their marital status. I didn’t see what business my marital status was back then, when I wasn’t married, and I still don’t now that I am. I use the name I was born with, and smoke comes out my ears when people who know better call me by my husband’s last name.

English is quite liberal in accepting neologisms, and new words enter the language all the time: localvore, texting and twerking are three examples. Grammar is harder to change.

Back in 1980, when The Handbook of Non-Sexist Language was first published, Miller and Swift confronted the pronoun problem in English, which offers only gendered singular pronouns: she/her/hers and he/him/his.

Handbook of Nonsexist WritingIn attempts to be inclusive, many writers used the awkward pronoun construction he/her – sometimes shortened to s/he – which is cumbersome, but works. Miller and Swift’s suggestion to use the non-gendered plural they/them/theirs instead of she/he, him/her, hers/his, has gradually been adopted. In both speech and writing, many people combine a singular noun with the plural pronoun, as in Everyone cheered when they saw the balloons.

I confess that the English teacher in me resisted this apparently ungrammatical usage at first. But as a woman who bristles at the male bias in our culture and language, I’m sensitive to inclusion. I’m dismayed when a white, straight, male professional, such as a physician, politician, professor or writer, for example, is referred to by their profession only, but all others are modified according to their otherness, be it gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or something else.

Resistance to change is human, especially when change threatens tradition, be it traditional power structures, religious beliefs, knowledge or accepted standards of behavior. But change still happens, just as knowledge expands.

During the second wave of feminism, we understood gender to be binary, and the feminist impulse was to create equality between men and women. A generation later, our understanding of gender has grown, making the change in pronoun usage even more pressing. With our new understanding of gender fluidity that includes men, women, transgender, transsexual and genderqueer, we need new pronouns in order to be inclusive and fair.

Trans*Ally WorkbookSeveral new pronouns have been introduced to achieve inclusiveness: ne/nir, ze/zir, per/pers are a few examples. You can learn about these and others in Davey Shlasko’s Trans* Ally Workbook: Getting Pronouns Right & What It Teaches Us about Gender. While one or more of the new constructions may eventually take hold, I think the adoption of the singular they is most likely to succeed now. After all, it’s already in use, and as the ancient Roman poet Horace observed millennia ago, Use is the judge, and rule, and law, of speech.

 

M. Shafer, Photo

M. Shafer, Photo

Deborah Lee Luskin is a second generation American who was raised in the New York metropolitan area and emigrated to Vermont in 1984.

 

27 thoughts on “Grammar Changes: The Singular They

    • Thanks for this perspective. I’m slowly warming to the word “genderqueer” – and you’re absolutely right about the musicality of the word itself. Very helpful. Thanks.

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. It’s quite an intersting debate. I personally find myself quite happily gravitating toward the “them/they” side of things, since it shrowds my words in an aire of mystery–am I talking about a male, female, or many people? It’s just my own amusement in that regard.
    Being in college now, I find most of my teachers accepts the “them/they” pronoun, however, I did have one teacher that was staunchly against it, which made it very difficult–and tedious–writing about Tahar Ben Jaloun’s book “The Sand Child”, in which a girl is raised as a boy then later explores what it means to be a woman (though his/her story is then told from several different perspectives, so the gender continues to alter). I took it as a writing challenge to see how I could weave the different pronouns in throughout the paper without confusing the reader. Though, whether I succeeded or not, I never found out. She never commented on my paper, just posted my grade a week after the quarter ended. It was some tricky business, regardless.

  2. I’m interested to know what you think about changing nouns and pronouns of earlier works to make them gender-neutral when they are quoted at ceremonies, programs, etc. Some churches routinely use gender-neutral language for readings from the Bible, but should that also extend to other literature, even 20th-century works?

    • Wow, this is an interesting aspect of the pronoun issue I’d not thought of at all. My initial reaction is that by and large we shouldn’t change the creative work of earlier writers. But I’m referring to poets, novelists, playwrights – writers of imaginary literature. The Bible is a whole different story, with no known author and translated repeatedly to boot. See Robert Alter’s translation of the Book of Psalms for a clear sense of how translation has changed what we accept as the biblical text.
      Ceremonial language is yet another issue. The language for these is often the work of committees and is regularly changed and updated. But I’m afraid all my prejudices are showing: I’m a confirmed iconoclast with more faith in the stars above than any religion on earth.
      What do you think?

      • Inclusive language has been an issue in the church, evolving during the ’70s, when I was in college and seminary, and especially as large numbers of women entered the ordained ministry. Numerous denominations and congregations have changed their language in the pulpit, worship, and hymnal. Over the last forty years, Biblical scholars have offered translations which account for the nuances of faith, gender, and truth–giving new light to scriptural inspiration. It has been a very exciting process to witness, and it has been refreshing and expanding to think of God, creation, and grace in gender-neutral ways. Words definitely change people’s hearts, so the formative nature of inclusive language is vital to the mission of the Church.

      • I’m with you on these points. Ironically, I don’t consider the sacred texts to be so sacred that we can’t make them more inclusive, which is the true test for religion and faith. The multiple translations through the ages, as you mention, make the alterations less offensive also. But to alter the pronouns of non-religious literature for the same purpose seems to me crossing some kind of sacred line. Perhaps I’m an alarmist, but when you start making those kinds of changes, where does it stop? Once again, will we start re-writing Twain to make him less offensive? Will we change the title of Flannery O’Connor’s short story to “The Artificial Black Person” (something her editor tried to convince her to do)? Will Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice become something other than a stereotypical, cliche Jew?

  3. The thing about last names & marriage is that even if I did not take my husband’s last name I would still have my father’s. My mother’s maiden name was her father’s before it was hers, so not much difference there. after all, what’s in a name? hahaha

    • Not everyone takes their father’s last name, or keeps it. (Note the use of the singular they in that sentence!) In some cultures, naming follows the maternal line. In 18th century Britain, names followed the money, and men were happy to change their names for an estate and bank account. Happily, there’s plenty of leeway for personal preference these days.

      • I go by my mother’s name, occasionally my father’s name and never my husband’s name. It just seems ridiculous to me to not follow the matrilineal line, although these cultural practices are difficult to shift…

  4. The cumbersomness of his/her, s/he has irked me always but better than deciding on one or the other or switching throughout a narrative. Then you throw in complete unease with using they because of the grammar violation but as you remind us, the rule is made firmer over time by its use. Thanks for sorting this out so clearly.

  5. As an editor, I struggle with this one, too. I usually change the pronoun to either the masculine or feminine singular and alternate which one I use so both are represented. It’s not the best solution, but it feels less incorrect and more inclusive.

    • Yes, until the style sheets (Chicago Manual of Style, AP Style, MLA, etc.) catch up with this usage, we’re in fairly uncharted territory. But the style sheets do catch up when the usage becomes commonplace. I have a friend who edits a medical magazine, and she’s just fastened on to the singular they. She and you make two – and I’m sure there are more.
      Thanks for commenting.

  6. I learned – relatively recently – that when one does not know the gender of whoever one is referring to, the default pronoun should be “she.” Statistically speaking, it is 20-ish% more likely to be correct. I learned this from an old grammar workbook.

  7. I am glad to read that.
    In my A-Levels I used “they” as pronoun for a friend, because I did want to use the pronoun they prefer. I knew that it was used informal, but wasn’t sure, whether grammar had changed so it would be correct. Reading this article I am quite glad that may assumption was write.
    Btw, I got an Good on my test. Therefore, as a nonnative speaker, my English must be very good.

      • I think it is still wrong because my English teacher said that the other parts were compensating it. I’ll have to go to the headmistress to check on that. In Austria, the headmistress stores the A-Level results for some time.

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