Can “They” Ever Be Singular?

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  • Nancy Tuten

    21 September 2019

    Can “They” Ever Be Singular?

    Editors at Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary caused quite a stir when they tweeted on September 17, 2019, that “the nonbinary pronoun ‘they’ has been added to the dictionary.” Their tweet addresses a frequently asked question: can they (or them or their) ever be singular?

    The wording of the tweet itself is somewhat problematic: the pronoun they has always been nonbinary and has always been in the dictionary. But what’s new (and, oddly, missing from the tweet) is that it is now included as an acceptable singular pronoun.

    This pronouncement set a lot of people’s hair on fire (read, for example, the comments below the tweet) and garnered the attention of prominent media outlets, including NBC News and the Washington Post.

    Two months earlier, a New York Times column had already opined that the time has come to fully embrace they as a non-gender-specific third-person singular pronoun. Other English usage sites, such as Instructional Solutions, are also on board.

    If you already understand that pronouns are supposed to agree with their antecedents, skip the following section and go on down to the next one, which focuses on the most recent aspect of the debate. But if you’re wondering what the fuss is all about, this next section is for you:

    Pronouns Need to Agree with Their Antecedents

    Some readers may be thinking that the use of they or their or them in reference to something singular sounds just fine. But many people (I’m looking at you, my fellow English teachers and grammar purists) would find the italicized plural pronouns in the following sentences problematic:

    1. Everyone came to our office party and brought their favorite dessert.
    2. Each employee has to sign their annual evaluation and return it by December 31.
    3. Someone forgot to lock the front door last night when they left the building.
    4. Anyone who has worked for the company for at least six months is eligible for retirement benefits, but they have to complete the appropriate forms.

    All of these sentences use a plural personal pronoun (namely, they and their) to refer to a singular antecedent (everyone, employee, someone, and anyone).

    Everyone, someone, and anyone are singular indefinite pronouns, so called because they do not refer to a specific person, place, or thing.  Other singular indefinite pronouns include each, neither, either, and one.

    Until very recently, most English teachers insisted that pronouns referring to singular antecedents, including these indefinite pronouns, should also be singular.

    The traditional way to correct the sentences above, then, would have been to replace the plural personal pronouns with their singular counterparts. For a long time, we replaced them solely with masculine pronouns and would have said “Everyone came to our office party and brought his favorite dessert.”

    We eventually wised up to the notion that it is not OK to default to masculine pronouns when we intend to refer to a group that is not all male, and we began using compound constructions:

    1. EVERYONE came to our office party and brought HIS OR HER favorite dessert.
    2. EACH employee has to sign HER OR HIS annual evaluation and return it by December 31.
    3. SOMEONE forgot to lock the front door last night when HE OR SHE left the building.
    4. ANYONE who has worked for the company for at least six months is eligible for retirement benefits, but SHE OR HE HAS to complete the appropriate forms.

    But Agreement Is Not the Only Issue

    No one has ever really liked the wordy and sometimes awkward compounds “his or her” or “she or he” or the even more distasteful constructions “s/he” and “her/him.”

    But the more significant issue is that all of these singular alternatives reinforce the gender binary; they assume that everyone identifies as either female or male.

    Unfortunately, in English we do not have a gender-neutral, singular, third-person pronoun. We use it in reference to inanimate objects, but we have no singular pronoun to use in reference to individual people when we don’t know their gender or when they themselves do not identify as either male or female.

    As we have awakened to an understanding that gender identity is more fluid than the socially constructed male-female binary suggests, it has become increasingly more important to find a non-gendered alternative.

    Through the years, linguists and others have attempted to introduce a new non-gendered singular pronoun into our language, such as ze, but those attempts failed.

    If you need no further encouragement, skip down to the section on strategies. But if you still aren’t convinced, read the next two sections first.

    Descriptive Dictionaries vs. Prescriptive Style Guides

    Far more newsworthy than Webster’s September 2019 tweet is the fact that several prominent style guides had already changed their prescriptions about the use of they.

    While virtually all dictionaries are descriptive (they describe how people are actually using a language, while noting that some usage is considered “nonstandard” or “colloquial” or “slang,” etc.), style guides are prescriptive: each style guide tells us what we should do if we choose to adhere to that particular set of usage guidelines.

    While we might expect style guides to lag behind dictionaries in changing their ruling on the use of the singular they, both the New York Times and the Associated Press began allowing the use of the singular they in 2017, as explained in this interesting article.

    The widely used Chicago Manual of Style notes that the singular they is preferable to the generic he, even in formal writing, but encourages the writer to avoid it whenever possible (see suggestions below). Chicago (as well as other style guides) goes on to note that a writer should always honor a person’s preferred pronoun, and when an individual prefers they to he or she, any subsequent verb should be plural.

    If a person has a roommate who prefers to be referred to as they, we should say, for example, “we hope they don’t snore,” not “we hope they doesn’t snore.”

    Change Is Hard, but History Helps

    For those of us who have spent decades insisting that they is plural, adjusting to a singular they isn’t easy.

    It helps to know that what we perceive as a change is, in fact, not new at all. Webster’s (as well as many other sources) notes that using they to refer to singular indefinite pronouns can be traced back for centuries. Strict insistence on its being plural is a relatively recent development.

    Grammar purists don’t have to like the use of the singular they, but they cannot fairly point to this change as an example of English grammar “going to hell in a handbag” (as we like to say down South when something has changed for the worse).

    It’s also helpful to remember that change is inevitable with all languages. Spend five minutes perusing the Oxford English Dictionary if you don’t believe that words change as needed to reflect an ever-changing and evolving world.

    Strategies for Making Pronouns Agree without Reinforcing the Binary

    Let’s look again at the four sentences above: one solution, of course, is simply to stick with the italicized plural pronouns. As we have noted, prominent dictionaries and style books are in your corner.

    But since that option still sounds wrong to many people, the very best solution is to avoid the pronoun completely or to change the antecedent to a plural noun or pronoun:

    1. EVERYONE came to our office party and brought a favorite dessert. [This revision avoids having the plural their refer to the singular everyone.]
    2. ALL employees HAVE to sign THEIR annual evaluations and return them by December 31. [This revision changes the singular each to the plural all, but it isn’t as clear as the original because it sounds as if each person is signing all the evaluations, not simply that person’s own evaluation.]
    3. SOMEONE forgot to lock the front door last night when leaving the building. [This revision avoids the use of he or she.]
    4. ANYONE who has worked for the company for at least six months is eligible for retirement benefits but has to complete the appropriate forms. [This revision avoids the use of she or he.]

    TEST YOURSELF

    How might each of these sentences be improved? Consider not only that pronouns should agree with their antecedents but also that we want to avoid reinforcing the gender binary.

    1. Everybody is leaving work early to be home with their families for a long weekend.
    2. Neither of the books has writing in their margins.
    3. Each of the players on the softball team has to wash their uniform between games.

    POSSIBLE ANSWERS

    1. ALL EMPLOYEES are leaving work early to be home with their families for a long weekend. [Changed the singular everybody to the plural all employees and kept the plural their] OR: All employees are leaving work early for a long weekend of family time at home. [Removed the possessive pronoun entirely to avoid the problem.]
    2. Neither of the books has writing in ITS margins. [Because book is inanimate, it works here.] OR: in THE margins. [Removes the need for a possessive pronoun.]
    3. If we know the players are all female (or all male), we could write “Each of the players on the softball team has to wash HER (or HIS) uniform between games.” If we are uncertain about the gender of the players or if the team is coed, we might write “EACH of the players on the softball team has to wash HIS OR HER uniform between games,” but that option reinforces the gender binary and ignores the reality that many people do not regard themselves as either male or female. A better option, then, might be to say “ALL of the players on the softball team have to wash THEIR uniforms between games.” The latter choice, however, is not as precise as the former because it fails to present the picture of each player washing that player’s own individual uniform. The best choice, then, is probably to use the singular their, as in the original sentence above.

    Copyright 2001 Get It Write. Revised 2019.

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