Grammar

The ‘Singular They’ Named Word of the Year

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It looks like it’s time for the old-school grammarians to accept the singular they. It doesn’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon.

When we all grew up, our English teachers stressed the importance of noun and pronoun agreement.

If John, for example, went to the store, he purchased items.

If Anna sold a painting, she felt proud of her efforts.

If Lisa and her friends went to the movies, they bought popcorn and drinks.

When a singular person was involved, the pronoun matched the gender of the person. When multiple people were involved, they or them were used, regardless of gender.

But things are different these days. We are more aware of gender identity than we used to be back then. We have learned, though some of us still have difficulty fully grasping the concept, that some people feel they were born into the wrong gender, identify as the opposite one, or identify as both or some other “non-binary” situation.

Some have advocated allowing they to work for all of the scenarios above, especially if the writer knows that either John or Anna may be transgender or gender-questioning.

Others advocate a bizarre set of neutral pronouns that few people will ever accept in every day use.

Given the choice of those two proposals, assuming that something must change, most people seem to accept the so-called “singular they.” (I never hear anyone refer to the “singular them,” but it seems to be understood that it would automatically be part of the equation.)

It’s the “grammar nerds,” as The Washington Post calls them, who are most going to have a problem with accepting a “singular they” as proper. That’s despite the fact that it has been part of English for many, many years. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen all used it in their writings.

Then last year, the Post Style Guide advocated its use. Editor Bill Walsh explained the “singular they” is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

Now, last week, the American Dialect Society voted it the “Word of the Year.”

The society’s New Words Committee Chair, Ben Zimmer, explained it this way:

“In the past year, new expressions of gender identity have generated a deal of discussion, and singular they has become a particularly significant element of that conversation.”

So I guess, like it or not, we’re stuck with it.

Frankly, I hate it. It looks like an error. However, I am willing to concede Walsh’s point that, unfortunately, we don’t have a better alternative.

How do you feel about the concept of the singular they? Would you use it in your writing or would you be more likely to rewrite a sentence to avoid a pronoun altogether?

1 Comment

  1. I believe I made my feelings clear in the original post. But I still hate the “singular they” and most of them are fairly represented in my choice, “s/he”. At least this word covers a truly singular word. Wow! What just happened!?

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 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.