General Question

SavoirFaire's avatar

What do you think of singular "they"?

Asked by SavoirFaire (20094 points ) January 8th, 2012

It has been standard English for centuries. It has been used by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Thackery, and even the King James Bible. It is more elegant than “one” and less impersonal than “it.” Yet despite all this, the use of singular “they” remains quite controversial.

These days, the topic is most often raised as part of a broader discussion of gender-neutral pronouns. Some have advocated recovering the lost pronouns “ou” and “a” of Middle English, while others have invented new pronouns such as “hir” and “zie.” Neither option, however, has caught on. The old gender-neutral pronouns are not coming back, and the new gender-neutral pronouns are not catching on.

Given that there are historical, theoretical, and practical reasons in favor of singular “they,” then, is it time for us to fully embrace its use?

A technical note: English has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. These categories are mutually exclusive, meaning that the neuter does not encompass the masculine and the feminine. Thus “it,” the pronoun corresponding to the neuter gender, does not properly refer to males or females. “One” is, at present, the only uncontroversial gender-neutral pronoun in the English language.

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43 Answers

zenvelo's avatar

It’s already pretty well embraced. I file formal documents with the Federal Government, they as a singular pronoun has been accepted for at least ten years, while the “proper grammar” use of he as a general singular pronoun always brings comment to add or she.

My son also says it is acceptable to use they at his high school.

bob_'s avatar

I don’t like it, I don’t like it one bit!

I don’t think “one” is any less elegant, either.

DominicX's avatar

I don’t mind it at all and use it quite frequently. It takes time for linguistic changes to be completely accepted but this one is most likely on its way to becoming fully-recognized standard grammar.

wundayatta's avatar

I’m in favor of using English as she is spoke, not as how the grammar prudes wish they could make it spoke. Our brains are amazingly adept at being able to dig out meaning from the most tenuous collection of memes. I say we let ourselves go.

We may lose specificity if we don’t force people to speak in a standard way, and some meaning will therefore be lost. But we gain so much more when we encourage people to use language in creative ways. We allow for the possibility of much greater communication when we have freedom.

2davidc8's avatar

I’m OK with it. In that case, it would similar in usage to “you”, which can be singular or plural, depending on the context.

fundevogel's avatar

While we’re at it can we bring back distinct pronouns for second person singular and plural?

What do ye think?

CaptainHarley's avatar

@fundevogel

I just thought that everyone used “y’all.” : ))

fundevogel's avatar

@CaptainHarley Thou dost, but I haven’t heard it in usage since I moved out of Florida.

basstrom188's avatar

Well it’s accepted by the OED for reasons put forward by questioner. It does put certain restrictions on its use to “contexts where it follows an indefinite pronoun such as anyone, no one, or a person as in each to their own. However they is often criticized for being ungrammatical when it comes after a singular noun”.

Jeruba's avatar

Can I see one or more examples from the King James Bible?

fundevogel's avatar

Just out of curiosity: If ye adopt the singular “they”, are ye prepared to say “they is” and “they does”?

downtide's avatar

I like it a lot, and the advantage is, it’s already in popular use. People assume it’s ungrammatical when in fact it isn’t.

Blueroses's avatar

If they don’t like it, they can self-fornicate.

I’m not terribly fond of the usage. I usually find ways around it, but what can one do in the face of popular acceptance?

JilltheTooth's avatar

I like it, and the occasional kerfuffle about it amuses me as English is so full of odd, seemingly contradictory rules, terms, etc etc, that this one is really no weirder than others.

JLeslie's avatar

I don’t like it much, and when I catch myself using it I sometimes change it. I sometimes use he/she, more often I just use he, kind of depends on my audience though. I was using you, but there was a fluther Q that said you is always incorrect because you always means the specific person you are talking to? I’m still not sure that is actually true. I can see how you can be misunderstood though. So, now I have been using one and a person, a lot also.

keobooks's avatar

I am excited to see historical precedence for using it.

morphail's avatar

There were no such pronouns “ou” and “a” in Middle English.

English doesn’t have genders in the same way that German or French have genders. English has no grammatical gender.

@Jeruba Deuteronomy 17:
Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones, till they die.

more examples

CaptainHarley's avatar

@fundevogel

LOL! Even I don’t use it that much, since it’s pretty much a collquilism. Mostly I use it either in jest, or as part of a farewell: “Y’all give us a ring now and then, ok?” : ))

morphail's avatar

Thanks to Geoffrey Pullum, here’s a demonstration of why “he/him/his” is not gender neutral:

Is it your brother or your sister who can hold his breath for four minutes?

The example from Deuteronomy I gave earlier shows this too. You can’t replace “them” with “him” in that sentence.

Uberwench's avatar

I like singular “they” a lot. The Spivak pronouns are awkward and getting people to adopt them seems unlikely. There’s a lot of resistance to it, and people already use singular “they” without even thinking about it. It just seems like a superior solution to the gender-neutral pronoun problem, especially since it’s also been standard English for so long. I agree that “one” can be clunky. It’s not that I would never use it or that it’s always bad, but just that sometimes it can get repetitive and awkward. “They” is a lot smoother in those situations. So as long as we’re not subtracting usage of “one,” I’m all for singular “they.”

@fundevogel We don’t need to say “they is” and “they does” because that’s not how singular “they” works historically. It woks as an object pronoun, whereas plural “they” is a subject pronoun. That’s how I think it works, at least.

@morphail William H. Marshall and Dennis Baron disagree with you. Also, the question only refers to people advocating use of the words. That part is true. You can find people trying to re-adopt it all over the internet (like here and here). I don’t get the part about grammatical gender. Individual words aren’t gendered in English, but that seems off-topic.

KoleraHeliko's avatar

It’s a brilliant word, really. And I’d like to drain a little of the plurality out of it, in fact. It’s so perfect for so many things which, otherwise, we’d have to fall back on the ‘neuter’ he.

Uberwench's avatar

@KoleraHeliko And universal “he” (it’s not neuter, by the way) is precisely what causes the modern problem in the first place. So yeah, I agree we wouldn’t want to fall back on that.

fundevogel's avatar

@Uberwench “We don’t need to say “they is” and “they does” because that’s not how singular “they” works historically. It woks as an object pronoun, whereas plural “they” is a subject pronoun. That’s how I think it works, at least.”

I didn’t know that, but that still leaves us without a gender neutral pronoun for third person subjects.

gasman's avatar

There is, not surprisingly, an entire Wikipedia article on singular they that goes into some depth on this topic.

I’ve used it myself as a substitute for the equally awkward “he or she,” though I try to limit its use in speaking and never use it in writing.

Most linguistics seem to be descriptivists, noting usage and frequency of a phenomenon but withholding judgement on “correctness.”

Uberwench's avatar

@fundevogel Oddly enough, though, it doesn’t tend to come up. This is because the singular “they” is typically used to refer back to an indefinite term that was previously used like “person” (where the gender of the person is unknown or irrelevant).

morphail's avatar

@Uberwench Well, I can’t find the epicene pronouns “ou” or “a” in the OED. Next time I’m in the library I’ll have a look in the English Dialect Dictionary.

I mentioned grammatical gender because the OP mentioned it.

fundevogel's avatar

@Uberwench Maybe not in real life. It happens a bit more on the internet where you’re often not sure of the gender of the people you’re conversing with. Or at least it seems that way. Less since I’ve been around here long enough to have ticked an awful lot of gender boxes.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@morphail I didn’t mention grammatical gender. I mentioned the three pronoun genders just to point out that the neuter “it” is not inclusive of “he” and “she.”

morphail's avatar

@SavoirFaire But you wrote
“A technical note: English has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter.”
I took “technical” to mean “grammatical”.

@Uberwench turns out we have free access to The English Dialect Dictionary But I can’t find those pronouns.

Uberwench's avatar

@fundevogel I see what you’re getting at. If I start talking about you, but don’t want to use your name over and over again, you’re thinking I could get into a position of having to say “I wonder if they is happy about this” or something like that. So maybe singular “they” doesn’t solve everything, but it still solves part of the problem.

@morphail Who cares if you can’t find them? The point rests only on this: people believe they once existed and are trying to bring them back. This is true.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@morphail Ah, I see. That’s not what I meant. Sorry for the confusion.

morphail's avatar

@Uberwench Yes fine, I’m not arguing about that. I’m just not convinced that they really existed in Middle English.

fundevogel's avatar

@Uberwench Yep, that’s exactly what I was thinking of.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

I think it’s fine…I don’t mind when people use singular they for me instead of she or her, I prefer it.

augustlan's avatar

[mod says] This is our Question of the Day!

The_Idler's avatar

I always thought using ‘they’ as a third person singular pronoun was pretty standard, which is why I never understood those advocates of making ridiculous and contrived new words.

There is no issue with grammar either, no need to say “they is” or any such nonsense.

e.g.

Past: Someone has left a business card on the bar. I wonder if they did that deliberately…
I wonder if they were trying to advertise themselves. Then again, maybe they had a lapse of attention. Perhaps we could contact them!

Present: Someone is about to exit the pub, leaving their business card upon the bar. They do it deliberately. They are probably trying to advertise themselves. They have no other excuse.

Future: Someone is going to make an advertisement of themselves. They will leave their business card on a bar. They will do it deliberately and have no excuse.

——

All of that sounds perfectly natural to me. Of course, the present tense is the most awkward, as it is standard practise to use gender pronouns when gender is known, and that is extremely probable in the present tense. Still, it all makes sense.

Need for a ‘new’ gender neutral pronoun? What need?
Any person suggesting that needs their faculties checking….

The_Idler's avatar

Oh, the Wikipedia article suggests that the avoidance of singular they is an American contrivance… that explains it then.

I don’t know why the Americans are so obsessed with butchering the language like this…

Just talk proper English like what we do over here and yinz’ll be aight

fundevogel's avatar

@The_Idler “Just talk proper English like what we do over here and yinz’ll be aight”

Proper English…snort. Which way should I be shifting my vowels?~

Aethelflaed's avatar

@The_Idler Over here in America, at least some of us were taught in school that using they this particular way was bad grammar, and we would be docked points if we used it in this manner.

The_Idler's avatar

I know, that’s why it’s funny.

It’s like watching a cockatoo teach proper diction to a budgerigar.

Aethelflaed's avatar

@The_Idler Man, that would make a really funny YouTube video…

Nullo's avatar

It feels sloppy, and like @bob_ I have no quarrel with ‘one.’
I’ll describe ‘one’ as ‘he’ if I must, since I’ve got to pick something and I am male; I use ‘she’ when there is less ambiguity.

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