The “Problem” with Singular “They”
April 29, 2016
By: Cramer Lewis
Here are five general truths:
- American writing values expedition.
- It’s important to consider your audience when writing, including their feelings.
- Using masculine pronouns to represent large groups of mixed company is wrong.
- Writing “his or her” is awkward and cumbersome.
- According to the style guides of academia, as well as most of the commercial writing world, using singular “they” is WRONG.
It doesn’t take much to find a bit of contradiction here.
First, let me slow down a bit and explain what I mean by singular “they.” Grammatically speaking, the word “they” is a pronoun. We use pronouns to replace nouns.
Here’s a simple example:
Students at Appalachian are stressed and cold. They are ready for Summer.
In this example, “they” takes the place of students. Since “students” is plural, “they” works as a grammatically correct pronoun since “they” is also plural.
Here’s an example of singular “they”:
Any person deserves human rights, regardless of their race or gender.
Some may read this example and accept it as “correct” without skipping a beat. Others may feel a bit strange about this usage. The truth of the matter is that we use singular they regularly in conversation.
In the example, the referent “person” grammatically necessitates a singular pronoun. Here’s where those five truths come into play, where those truths contradict themselves. According to grammatical standards, “they” is wrong here because it disagrees in number with “person.”
Ok, fine…so how should we change it? Get ready for more contradiction. If we want to be expeditious, we wouldn’t use such a long and, when repeated, absolutely annoying phrase as “he or she.” Remember, we want to be expeditious, because we don’t want the meaning we’re trying to communicate to get muddled. Obviously, simply using “he” to represent any person is factually wrong and potentially offensive. (Folks started resisting this awhile ago, by the way.) Just don’t do it.
To recap and clarify this example: We can’t use singular they because grammar says so, BUT we shouldn’t slow things down and take up unnecessary space with “he or she.” And, “he” has been out since about the 70s. We are caught, then, between appeasing grammar, retaining stylistic merit, and making sure that we properly value all human life regardless of gender, which are all significantly important concerns. What is a pronoun-conscious person, who wants to communicate effectively and without polarizing any audience members, to do?
Well, if you’re currently a part of academia, where singular they catches a pretty awful rap as WRONG (despite the fact that it was actually originally used as a singular gender neutral pronoun), then the sad answer is that you have to wait. But help may soon be on the way. The American Dialect Society sweepingly elected singular “they” as the 2015 word of the year as well as 2015’s most useful word. Further, The Washington Post has added singular they to its style guide.
Language rules regularly change over time, and this push for singular they will not likely go away. Until singular they is an accepted academic usage, those of us who wish to write eloquently while treating others with respect face a choice of upholding or challenging the current status quo in our treatment of the singular “they” conundrum.