Azure Fire Publishing authors believe in editing our books to perfection before publishing them. Like most authors, part of our process involves beta readers. One of them recently complained about my use of singular they, which she assumed were typos. This prompted this post.
What is Singular They?
Wikipedia defines singular they as the use in English of the pronoun they, or its inflected or derivative forms, such as them, their, themself, or themselves, as a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to a single person or an antecedent that is grammatically singular. It typically occurs with an antecedent of indeterminate gender, as in sentences such as:
- “Somebody left their umbrella in the office. Would they please collect it?”
- “The patient should be told at the outset how much they will be required to pay.”
- “But a journalist should not be forced to reveal their sources.”
Is it a mistake?
Short answer, no. Singular they is hardly new. Indeed, it had already emerged by the 14th century and is common in everyday spoken English. However, its use has been the target of criticism since the late 19th century, even as its use in formal English has increased with the trend toward gender-neutral language. Some traditionalists argue that to use “they” in the singular is a grammatical error, even though there is a counter argument that “they”, “their”, and “them” have long been grammatically acceptable as gender-neutral singular pronouns in English.
Pick Your Mistake
In a sense, this is a lose-lose situation: when the gender is unknown, we are forced to make one of two possible mistakes. As linguist John M. Lawler points out, you can use “he” generically, which violates the Rule of Grammar that says that he is masculine, and therefore can’t be used with a feminine reference. This violates a Gender Agreement rule:
Once the patient is prepped, he should be moved into the delivery room.
On the other hand, you can use “they” generically, which violates the Rule of Grammar that says that they is Plural, and therefore can’t be used with a singular reference. This violates a Number Agreement rule:
Once the patient is prepped, they should be moved into the delivery room.
So, we have two conventional solutions that violate one Rule of Grammar each and therefore offend some people. Which people will be incensed depends on which Rule of Grammar is being violated. The people who get upset about violating Rule 1, the gender agreement rule, tend to be women and men who don’t feel like excluding women.
The people who get upset about violating Rule 2, the number agreement rule, on the other hand, tend to be people who are unaware of singular they (and the respective debate).
British vs. American English
American English often seems less tolerant of singular they than British English. For example, in the 14th edition (1993) of The Chicago Manual of Style, the University of Chicago Press explicitly recommended use of singular use of they and their, noting a “revival” of this usage and citing “its venerable use by such writers as Addison, Austen, Chesterfield, Fielding, Ruskin, Scott, and Shakespeare.” However, the 15th and 16th editions recommend against it in formal use, for fear that readers will doubt your literacy.
Confusingly enough, The Washington Post announced in January 2016 that singular they was the word of the year, 2015. Also, The Post’s style guide ratified this usage in December 2015. As Post copy 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.”
Likewise, in Britain, informal spoken English exhibits nearly universal use of the singular they. An examination by Jürgen Gerner of the British National Corpus published in 1998 found that British speakers regardless of social status, age, sex, or region used the singular they overwhelmingly more often than the gender-neutral he or other options.
Writing vs. Grammar
There are just two basic rules we absolutely need to remember when writing:
- Writing is all about style; and
- Grammar is all about clarity.
As long as people understand what I’m saying, I feel free to use whichever style I find preferable. For me, singular they is an elegant (dare I say, beautiful?) solution to the question of gender; certainly more elegant than writing “he or she” or the awkward “s/he.” So, writers, if anyone tells you off for using singular they, just refer them to this post!