Home : The Singular They is Now Officially Correct

singular theyFind your favorite writer and give them this message: They no longer have to mire their writing down with awkward “his or her” and “he or she” and “he/she” usages. According to The Washington Post, the singular they/them has been adopted as officially correct English by over 200 linguists at the American Dialect Society. The Washington Post has already integrated the new rule into its style guide.

Traditionally, they and them have been plural, referring to groups of more than one person. When referring to one person of unknown gender, the generic masculine served well until feminists took issue with practice.

Find a teacher in the hall and give this gift to him. I'm sure he'll appreciate it.

became:

Find a teacher in the hall and give this gift to him or her. I'm sure he or she will appreciate it.

Speed bumps? No. You know those tire shredders they have at car rental facilities that prevent drivers of stolen cars from driving out the entrances? What a quandary! Is eviscerating our sentences truly a sign of respect for women? Good prose is music. This is noise. Some settling of contents occurs during shipping and handling. Not good.

Other solutions employ slashes:

Find a teacher in the hall and give this gift to him/her. I'm sure he/she will appreciate it.

Some writers (I confess I’ve used this technique at times) began to use or alternate using the generic feminine singular instead of the generic masculine. I can’t accurately estimate what proportion of women were offended by the generic masculine, but I never met a man who felt at all excluded or diminished when the generic feminine was used. I suppose that’s patronizing, but it puts the melody back in the prose and sidesteps the offensive usage—at least for those who are offended by it.

Find a teacher in the hall and give this gift to her. I'm sure she will appreciate it.

The practice does sound a bit strange in certain situations:

Find the battalion commander and give this message to her.

Though the battalion commander is almost certainly male, roles have changed. Women serve in the military in combat positions. Would a female marine feel slighted by the generic masculine? I don’t know, but if she is, you’ve made one tough enemy.

Enter the singular “they” and “them” to solve the problem by circumventing the issue.

Find a teacher in the hall and give this gift to them. I'm sure they will appreciate it.

Language is a malleable and evolving thing. Casual speakers adopted this common “incorrect” usage years ago, probably because the “correct” one stinks. Opponents argue that they and them are plural words that specifically distinguish their subject groups from singular individuals. But logical inconsistencies abound in English. Shouldn’t it be:

He go.
They goes.

If you’re writing formally or professionally, defer to your style guide for guidance on correct usage. The Chicago Manual of Style acknowledges the problem, but doesn’t quite bless the singular they—yet. MLA still says “pronouns should agree in number.” Beyond popular style guides, you’ll find no single, official authority that decides what constitutes correct English (and that’s probably a good thing), but the singular they appears to be a result of “the street” having rejected the awkward, unmusical solutions proposed by the grammar mafia. Now that the American Dialect Society is willing to back the practice, I’ll be joining the singular they revolution. After all, doesn’t every writer want their writing to feel good, sound good, and present no unintended offense?

Here’s Merriam Webster’s take on the issue:


Comments

The Singular They is Now Officially Correct — 20 Comments

  1. The street is full of anarchist tendencies and trends; the authorities, of ironic anachronisms. I fear the democratisation of everything, especially the awesome powers of the parliamentarians at the gate.

  2. Thanks for the info. Since publishers use the Chicago Manual, I don’t have much of a choice. It’s a great idea, but how long will it be for everyone to accept it?

    • I never cared for the s/he usage any more than “him or her” or “his or her,” but sometimes the reframing of the sentence produces its own awkward problems. In literature, where you have more “colors” to paint with, it’s easier to find workarounds, but in simple, functional, direct prose, the generic masculine singular solves a lot of problems. Most style manuals still support the practice despite the objections of feminists, but “the street” seems to have adopted singular “they.” As Alexandra York pointed out in a previous comment, the street adopts some maddening styles (Every time I hear someone go something, I wish they’d just say away.), but it’s still where real language grows and changes – whether or not it’s blessed by the establishment.

  3. I think this particular issue is far less important than usage such as “he goes” when you mean “he says.” Also the use of “sucks” has entered even polite language, and it is vulgar. Urban street slang is intruding upon elegant, refined English everywhere. It should seem apodictic that thoughtful wordage and flow of phrase are most important for concinnity of overall delight in both writing and reading. Alexandra York, Author and Editor

  4. Like Joel, have been using ‘they’ forever. But then I am English. My issue would be with words like ‘patronising’, ‘tire’ and closed quotes outside the full point, instead of ‘patronising’, ‘tyre’ and ‘”.’ when quoting. Not sure why I’d be ruled by the American Dialect Society. Are they an authority? Chicago Manual us a must reference for me when copywriting or proofreading for the American market. Otherwise, I stick to the original beautiful language – with all its rules and idiosyncrasies – that we created over here!

    • I think if any of us spoke “original English” as created “over there,” we’d be laughed out of the park. Language is an evolving, changing, amorphous thing – on both sides of the pond Consider the numerous regional, racial, and cultural dialects associated with English wherever it’s spoken. And consider that Chicago is very much an American “authority” to the extent that any source could be considered one. When writing for American audiences, put punctuation inside the quotes. When writing for others, put the punctuation outside. Which is “correct?” Neither or both. The problem we editors encounter (and I include myself) is that we develop opinions about what’s right and cite one academic authority or another. Scholars have tried to come up with new words in the past to address the gender-neutral pronoun problem, but language doesn’t travel from the ivory tower to the street. Solutions – elegant or otherwise – develop at ground level and trickle up.

      • Could not agree more. In fact, I wrote in my hypnosis manual. “Mind-bending for Mind-mending,, Wizard Ways With Words.” “Everyone’s speech pattern (and applies similarly to writing in this case) is an individual meld of culture, region, schooling, class and family, plus other specific personal history. Therefore anyone reading and using this work might need to make fitting adjustments to match their own predominant dialect and emotional being.”

        I realized years ago that al language rules of right and wrong are set up by self appointed ” authorities, often containing a hidden snobbery of social class. Looking up some “London slang” words in my teens, I discovered they were listed as 250 years old. How long before they are accepted as part of the “official” language? Another 250 years? Some words I found that originated in Shakespeare were listed as slang in his time, mostly lost from current speech.

    • Yes, Catherine, you and the children of everyone who remained on the island between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries created the English language; including the period in which you wanted it to more closely resemble French, but nevermind that.

  5. I have used they/their as singular since doing applied linguistics studies in 1990s; however, this usage actually dates back as far as Chaucer, and was widely used throughout the intervening centuries until the mid-19th century when it seems to have faded out. The full version of the Oxford English Dictionary (20 volumes) gives historical examples.

  6. Still can’t bring myself to use the singular ‘they’. I use ‘him/her’ only sparingly, however, preferring to recast the sentence, or, when possible, to change the subject to a plural.

    • I’m with you on this, Katherine. I try to avoid the problem as much as possible, resorting to your strategies. At my age, I’ve witnessed rapid change on many levels at the hands of mass culture, much of it technological and not all of it salutary.

    • I agree, Katherine. Using a plural term to refer to a single person is awkward to me. It would have been more useful to come up with a unique, gender-neutral term instead of blurring the meaning of “they.”

  7. Apparently I’m an accidental rebel; I’ve been doing this all along ’cause it just made sense to me. But then, I don’t report to anyone who carries a style guide.

    When I was a kid, I saw the dictionary as a rule book. It caused me a good bit of grief in my speaking and writing. Well, mostly it caused grief in my listening and reading, because people just wouldn’t live up to my expectations.

    I heave a sigh of relief every time logic and common sense slip into language and improve how we use it.

Leave a Reply