Grammar

Gender Issues Prompting Acceptance of the Singular They

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A growing movement is underway to allow the singular they to be treated as acceptable in writing.

“The English language is always evolving.”

This is something that is often said by people who wish the language would evolve more quickly towards whatever usage they hope to be able to make without criticism.

However, increased awareness about gender identity issues is leading a push for accepting what is known as the singular they.

It’s one of those little grammatical traps that has delighted grammar teachers and grammar police alike for generations.

Here’s an example:

A friend of yours called, but _______ didn’t leave a message.

What goes in the blank?

By the strictest grammar rules, a singular pronoun, such as he or she, goes into the blank because anyone requires a singular pronoun.

The pronoun he has traditionally been used universally to apply to everyone, not just males, just as the word mankind generally applies to all people, not just those of the male persuasion. A growing number of women don’t appreciate a perceived exclusion. One of them in particular, a long-time reader of mine, was so incensed about my usage of the masculine pronoun generically as to apparently stop reading altogether (after a somewhat heated exchange of comments).

Regrettable, of course, but I didn’t make that rule, did I?

In any event, now that gender identity has entered the public dialog, some are calling for a greater acceptance of a “singular they,” which would relax those rules enough to allow they (and similar plural pronoun forms) to properly fill in that blank:

A friend of yours called, but they didn’t leave a message.

For most people, it probably doesn’t even seem like a mistake.

But for those who’d protest, you should be aware of a few key points.

First, this usage has been around a lot longer than most strict grammarians care to admit, including passages of the Bible.

Second, it has appeared in the works of well-known, well-respected masters of the language, including the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer, C.S. Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Walt Whitman, George Eliot, Shakespeare, William Thackeray, Jane Austen, and Oscar Wilde.

Third, the next-best option is a ridiculous collection of pronouns that intentionally remove all gender references altogether. That is not a better alternative.

It’s time we accept the fact that the singular they and its counterpart, the singular their, have been around for a long, long time and aren’t likely to go away.

We might as well accept it and find another grammatical quarrel to obsess about.

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

2 Comments

  • It’s perfectly acceptable to consider me a fussbudget, a little OCD, or whatever other descriptor you wish to use. But the singular they?! Gods above, who came up with that foolishness? I also tell people it is reprehensible to use the word “at” on the end of a sentence! I sometimes end up writing fast and using “they” incorrectly, but it is wrong. You will see sometimes I write s/he or the correct phrase “he or she”, as well – obviously, I caught the error that time and swiftly replaced it. But wrong is just that. WRONG.

    I do realise that any language is a living, changing organism, but to corrupt it?! Will we also start using “aks” instead of “ask”?! I think not. At least, I won’t.

    • If you do not permit the use of “they” as a singular pronoun, then which gender do you suggest we use to refer to non-binary individuals? I am not talking about unspecified persons but third parties that are known.

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