Is “They” Acceptable as a Singular Pronoun?
Every time I use they as a singular pronoun in one of my entries, someone posts a comment, or emails me, scolding me for my grammatical error. My response? I (politely) tell them to get over it.
Granted, multiple grammatical strategies are available for people to identify someone with a personal pronoun, each of which can be used exclusively or in combination with one or more of the others:
Use the male gender: “Each person is entitled to his opinion.”
Use the female gender when all possible referents are women: “Each nun is entitled to her opinion.”
Use both male and female genders: “Each person is entitled to his or her (or his/her) opinion.”
Alternate gender references in repeated usage: “Each person is entitled to his opinion. However, she should also be receptive to those of others.” (This strategy is best employed with distinct anecdotes in separate passages; it’s awkward in proximity as shown in this example.)
Use an indefinite article in place of a pronoun: “Each person is entitled to an opinion.”
Recast the sentence to plural form: “All people are entitled to their own opinions.”
I have used most of these strategies often. However, there is an additional option: “Each person is entitled to their opinion.”
This, to many people, is a controversial solution. It’s true that style guides — which are often prescriptivist (“Do this”) rather than descriptivist (“This is what’s done”) — argue against using it, at best warning that writers who employ it may be considered to be in error. The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, advises, “While [shouldn’t that be although?] this usage is accepted in casual contexts, it is still considered ungrammatical in formal writing.”
Many literate people who use the singular they in speech hesitate to do so in writing because of this prejudice. As a result, too, there is a lingering resistance among many editors to allow it.
However, the singular they is widely accepted in written British English, and it is well documented in the works of many great writers, including Auden, Austen, Byron, Chaucer, Dickens, Eliot, Shakespeare, Shaw, Thackeray, and Trollope. It was the singular pronoun of choice in English for hundreds of years before, in 1745, an otherwise-reasonable grammarian named Anne Fisher — yes, a woman — became possibly the first person to champion he as the universal pronoun of choice.
According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “The use of they, their, them, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts.” Meanwhile, R.W. Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and Bryan A. Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, predict the inevitable dominance of the singular they.
I am flummoxed by the controversy over it and by the resistance of many people to accept it. Singular they has long been used in literature and in conversation, and though it still has an informal taint, it seems to me absurd to resist adopting it when it satisfies an aching need.
Its irregular form is problematic, but each of the other options is flawed as well: Using he alone disenfranchises half the population (no rebuttals of this irrefutable point are necessary; I’ve read enough already), as does using her alone. Use of dual gender terms (“he or she” and “his or her”) is suitable in isolation but tiresome in repetition, and use of an invented gender-neutral term is ludicrous, especially considering that we already have one: they.
Use of alternating genders has the same limited suitability as the dual-gender form, as does that of the gender-neutral indefinite article and the plural form. Even application of two or more options becomes awkward when the strategy is used in excess.
That all being said, I wanted to know what our readers think is the best solution. That’s why I decided to run a poll. Do not hesitate to leave a comment as well if you want to expand on your thoughts. (Email subscribers must visit our website in order to cast their votes).
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