Is “They” Acceptable as a Singular Pronoun?

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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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115 thoughts on “Is “They” Acceptable as a Singular Pronoun?”

  1. The instances of the singular “they” in works such as Shakespeare and Dickens are usually conversational. These classic authors were writing how people talk. When one is writing a news story, a scholarly paper, or even a blog, HE or SHE can do better by using logical grammar sense. 1≠3.

    By the way, why would you mention Chaucer? He still used genitive ending on nouns like Latin and broke many modern grammar rules—”Me thynketh it acordaunt to resoun / To telle yow al the condicioun / Of ech of hem…” He’s not a good model for 21st c. grammar.

    Tip of the hat to thebluebird11 and Linda M Au and all the rocking, logical grammarians! </;-)

  2. I was taken to task by a French gentleman, who is admittedly extremely well versed in the English language, for using ‘their’ as a singular pronoun in a piece of writing. “Shouldn’t it be ‘his?’ he queried. “What if your reader is a woman?” I retorted.

    He looked non-plussed as French (like Spanish) will use the masculine pronoun even though descibing a situation where one male and 50 females are involved.

    Delighted to read your post. I totally agree and shall probably send this on to my French amie (sorry…. AMI!)

  3. I felt I had to go back and preface my comments to clarify that they’re not intended to be as sarcastic or harsh as they might come across as if one wanted to interpret them as being so. It’s just a discussion on grammar and this is a well-written article, even if I happen to disagree with your conclusion.

    My interpretation is that your basic point is that people should get over “they” being used as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun even though it’s not actually singular? As opposed to using an actual singular pronoun because it will either sound awkward (using either “he/she” “or (s)he”) or half the species may be offended? The argument could easily be made that you or those individuals who would be offended should be the ones getting over it. So we have the options of an awkward and/or insensitive (but grammatically correct) solution on one hand, or a grammatically incorrect usage (which some might argue is part of the evolution of the language) on the other.

    There isn’t any singular elegant solution to the problem, as lovely as it would be if there were. But the rationale for using “they” seems flimsy at best, especially given all of the possible alternatives. That argument seems to boil down to “It’s too much work to do it properly, let’s just change the rules of grammar to make it easier.”

    If you truly feel the plurality of the pronouns just don’t, why not try replacing all the “I’s” in your next post with either “We” or “Mark Nichol.” It would be wrong and perhaps confusing for your readers, but they’d figure it out, right?

    That isn’t a serious suggestion, of course, but that would seem to be pretty close to equivalent as the singular “they”.

  4. I am a proofer/copyeditor and I’ve faced this situation many times. There is always a better way than resorting to improper use of the language. Recasting as plural is my fallback, but using an occasional he/she is fine. When possible, I use the indefinite article, but it doesn’t work as often as I would like it to.

    So I agree with Jane who just does not accept a word that is clearly plural to stand in as a singular pronoun. It would be nice if, as someone suggested, that we had a word similar to you that could cover both singular and plural. BUT WE DON’T. Curmudgeon defenders of the English language, stay strong!

  5. I think @thebluebird11 said everything I was thinking (good job!). I could not answer your poll as I didn’t like any option!

    Even if you say it’s okay, I still can’t feel comfortable doing it. If singular doesn’t match with singular, and plural with plural, it just feels completely wrong to me.

    Perhaps if I’d been initially taught that “they”–like you (or money, furniture or food)–could go either way, it would be okay. But, that’s not the case and so I rearrange my words to accommodate my prejudice.

    Note: I am female, but it does not bother me a bit if people are referred to exclusively as “he.” Less distracting than mixing it up or “he/she”ing things, and better than being multiplied with “they” or dehumanized with “it.”

  6. I’m an amateur author and also a copywriter. I’ve had this ‘they’ problem for some time now and am more than happy to use it instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’ when it clarifies what I’m saying. Writing isn’t primarily about good grammar – it’s about making sure your reader (or audience in the case of advertising) fully understands what you are saying. If it is ambiguos, use ‘they’. Grammar comes second to clarity every time.

  7. I find it interesting that although comments are fairly evenly divided over the acceptability of singular they/their, the poll is currently overwhelmingly accepting at 72.63% of ~450 votes.

  8. “use of an invented gender-neutral term is ludicrous, especially considering that we already have one: they.”

    We have a singular gender-neutral term: it. However, I guess it’s inappropriate to refer to people as “its.” Go figure.

  9. @mike: “Grammar comes second to clarity every time.”

    I disagree with that blanket statement. I believe (thank you, Sharon and all other like-minded folks here today) that rules of grammar promote precision and clarity. Therefore, I see no reason that grammar and clarity should be mutually exclusive, EVER. English is a very rich language, and as noted, we have words and options to satisfy our needs to express ourselves. If we don’t exercise those options, in this case in particular it is because of laziness, or perhaps ignorance, not because we don’t have a proper option. Why does anyone feel the need to fight for the incorrect use of “their,” when it is correct, and just as easy, to say, “Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion”? Is someone too lazy to say “his or her”? Is someone too afraid to “offend” half the world by saying only “his” or only “her”? Are we at the point that we need to make a choice between being PC or GC?! I’m with Tanya, and if I ever find a “Grammar Curmudgeon” bumper sticker, I’ll be happy to put it on my car!

  10. If someone has a problem with singular “they,” then they should get over it.

    It’s convenient, elegantly simple, understood AND commonly used.

    And remember… languages CHANGE. “You” used to be only plural, but now serves as both plural and singular. The area of meaning for “they” in this limited contexts is changing… in fact, HAS changed.

  11. Absolutely! English is the most fluid language and most used as a spoken language. Although I would hesitate to use some of the informal expressions you hear everyday, this is usage that avoids the greater pitfalls you list for the other options.

  12. I find it interesting that although comments are fairly evenly divided over the acceptability of singular they/their, the poll is currently overwhelmingly accepting at 72.63% of ~450 votes.

    I wonder what that tells us?

    Most of the people voting are illiterates incapable of posting a written response, perhaps? 🙂

  13. Peter: Touché. I suspect it demonstrates that those against feel more passionately and want to make their case to counter Mark’s original post. Those who are relaxed about singular they/their are more relaxed in general.

    Mike: “Grammar comes second to clarity every time.”
    thebluebird11: “I see no reason that grammar and clarity should be mutually exclusive, EVER.”

    I think the problem sometimes arises when people confuse grammar with style and promote a grammatical “rule”, regardless of context, and sometimes to the detriment of clarity.

    Context is all.

  14. “They” should be used for more than 1 person, animal or thing and not to refer to a singular person, animal or thing.

    If you have problems referring to a singular person of unknown gender or want a word that encompasses both, then try to express yourself differently. I do not like using he/she etc either but converting a plural pronoun and calling it a singular pronoun isn’t the answer.

  15. Peter> From your cheeky smiley, I assume you are being humorous when you denigrate half of the readers of this blog that disagree with you. Hear me laugh.

  16. Back in the Usenet era, the group alt.usage.english thrashed this issue out regularly. Exchanges would run to hundreds of comments, and commentary was provided by expert linguists and scholars.

    Usually, the descriptivist-leaning types would haul out Jane Austen, as this blog writer does, and argue from authority, and past usage, and that’s what we see here.

    The other line of argument is that it doesn’t matter if Austen made a mistake and her editor didn’t correct it – it’s still wrong. There is no such thing as “singular they” because “they” is plural.

    The prescriptivist position is that lax, careless usage leads to lax, careless thinking. For example, let’s say we’re talking about a situation where we have a space capsule, which seats one astronaut. Can we have, “The astronaut should put on their helmet before launch”?

    Well, sure you can. But it’s confusing because there aren’t two or a dozen astronauts. Here, there is one. The plural pronoun looks intrusive and bespeaks the worst sort of political correctness run amok.

    In fact, the answer to this problem is the same as it’s always been: English lacks a neutral third-person pronoun. The smart writer will use a variety of approaches to solve the conundrum, including using plurals or articles, recasting, and the occasional “his or her.”

    Wishing for a panacea, a quick ‘n’ easy fix that eliminates the issue as this blog exhorts, well, that ain’t gonna happen. Sorry.

  17. As I tell my students (and have had to tell various freelance editors), “they” is often used as a singular pronoun, but frequent usage does not equal grammatical correctness.

    Precise language use and rigorous adherence to grammatical correctness adds to clarity. Additionally, and practically speaking, when people pay us edit and proofread their manuscripts, they want them to be error free. Anything less is bad service.

    In that last paragraph, I could have written, “If someone pays us to edit and proofread his or her…” (which is correct but cumbersome) or “If someone pays us to edit and proofread their…” (which is incorrect). Instead, I used “people” and “their.”

    My two main strategies for resolving this error are as follows, in order of preference.
    1. Use a plural antecedent to allow for the plural pronoun.
    2. Remove the plural pronoun altogether and revise the sentence.

    The article entitled “Sexist Language and Bad Grammar” explores these options in greater detail, but I’ll give you an example of how they are used.

    Consider the following (incorrect) sentence. “Everyone who has a puppy knows they need a carpet cleaner.” This sentence is both wrong (“everyone” vs. “they”) and confusing (does “they” refer to “everyone” or “a puppy”?). This sentence has a singular subject, a singular verb, and a plural pronoun. Whoops!

    Let’s apply the first strategy to the sentence: make the antecedent plural.
    1. “People who have a puppy know they need a carpet cleaner.” This resolves both the agreement problem (“people” is “they”) and the antecedent confusion (“they” can only be “people” because “people” is the only plural noun to which “they” can apply).

    Now let’s apply the second strategy: remove the pronoun and revise.
    2. “Everyone who has a puppy knows the need for a carpet cleaner.” This revision has no pronoun, thus avoiding the issue.

    Here’s the point: A careful writer does not need to use “they” as a singular.

  18. @Cecily: Context and clarity are obviously two different things, certainly not mutually exclusive. As The Raven so clearly points out (and as Mark pointed out right at the beginning), English lacks a neutral third-person pronoun, but has several other ways of correctly compensating for that, without leaving speakers/writers having to resort to incorrect grammar (as pervasive as it may be). We don’t need to invent a new word; if people are already too lazy, confused or ignorant to use what we have, why invent something else?! That seems, to me, really counterproductive.
    Yes, if you said “The astronaut should put on their helmet,” in context I think everyone would understand what you mean, and I think there would be no problem with clarity. But it’s still incorrect grammar. We have ways to express concepts in context, with clarity and proper grammar all at the same time. Is it so difficult to say “The astronaut should put on a helmet”? If you’re being paid by the word, you can stretch it to “The astronaut should put on his or her helmet.”
    I’m not the Grammar Police; I am not on this planet to tell people what to do. But I choose for myself to speak (or at least write) in an educated manner.

  19. thebluebird11: Writing that you choose to use language “in an educated manner” is not an entirely helpful phrase in this debate: British education (and usage) differs from American education and usage regarding singular they/their, just as it does with how to punctuate quotations, how you spell certain words etc.

    The Rave: You state that “The astronaut should put on their helmet before launch” is confusing, but I think it is only confusing to those who insist that “their”, unlike “your”, can only ever be singular. To those like me (i.e. most Brits) who have grown up with the ubiquity of such usage, there is no confusion at all.

  20. It’s odd to me that this is so controversial when the same principle is almost universally accepted for “you”. I say almost, because here in the South the plural of you, of course, is “y’all” (never “you all”).

  21. @Precise Edit: “People who have a puppy know they need a carpet cleaner.”
    While I agree with you, I would not be happy with the above sentence, because “people” would more likely have “puppies.” My first choice in rewording the sentence would be, “People who have puppies know that a carpet-cleaner is needed.” Second choice would be “People who have puppies know that they need a carpet-cleaner.” (I am assuming here that a carpet-cleaner is a type of cleanser, some sort of spray or whatever). The reason for the second choice is that there is still some ambiguity, as stated, with the question being, do the people need the carpet-cleaner, or do the puppies need it?
    @Cecily:”Educated” for ME is where I was educated; “educated” as applied to someone else is wherever that someone was educated. While it is obviously common practice (and seemingly correct) for Brits to use they/their, it is not considered correct here in the US. “When in Rome” and all that. If an American uses they/their, it is not because they like the Brit rule better; chances are they aren’t even aware of it. Chances are they are just uneducated or lazy! When I begin to speak with a British accent, I will be sure to use they/their 😉 I must say I prefer Brit accents to mine!

  22. @Cecily: “The Rave: You state that “The astronaut should put on their helmet before launch” is confusing, but I think it is only confusing to those who insist that “their”, unlike “your”, can only ever be singular.”
    The point here is a bit more fine. The astronaut example specifies that there is only one capsule, one seat, one astronaut, and one helmet. “They” seems less forced in examples where there is, notionally, some plurality involved.

    For example: “Every student should put their tray in the bin when leaving the hall.” This is improper grammar, but it’s the sort of thing you tend to hear frequently, because we are referring to all students in question. The more the idea of a single, specific individual is being stressed, the weirder “they” looks in such constructions.

    So on my grammatical scale, “singular they” has a sliding level of impropriety, ranging from “almost acceptable” to “grammatically intolerable.”

  23. I only use “they” as singular to refer to someone when I don’t know “their” gender. I think it is acceptable to be used as a genderless singular pronoun since we inconveniently do not have any other genderless singular pronouns than “it,” which is very impersonal and used more to refer to objects than to people.. or when applied to a person, would probably more likely refer to a person who has no gender or is both genders, rather than someone whose gender you don’t know.

    But when anonymity is so rampant on the internet, and most of the time you have no idea whether the person you’re talking to or about is male or female, then a genderless singular pronoun is very much needed.

    Using “he or she” and “he/she” and the like are just very awkward, especially in casual speech, and reconstructing your entire sentence just to avoid the use of one little pronoun seems even more awfully inconvenient to me.

  24. The pronoun “their” is appropriate and using “to each his own” in referrence to an unknown gender is also correct (especially when men are involved).

  25. What happened to the voting option, “Recast the sentence to eliminate the problem”? I was disappointed to be forced to vote for the best of four poor options.

  26. The Raven and @Cecily: “The astronaut should put on their helmet before launch” Why not just use: The astronaut should put on a helmet…”? Simple, right?

  27. As a marketing copywriter, I agree that the best solution is the word that sounds the most natural in conversation. Many times I’ve started out by using “his/her”, but as you suggested the use of dual gender terms like this may be suitable in isolation but gets very tiresome in repetition – especially when reading written text.

    Thanks for sharing your point of view. Much appreciated.
    Debra Jason, The Write Direction

  28. “Every student should bring HIS pen,” unless the class is solely female. It is clear, it is universally understood to include both genders and all variants such as hermaphrodites, castrati, trans-genders, and it is concise. “His/her” is awkward and verbose; “her” is irritatingly politically correct; constantly alternating masculine and feminine is irritating, confusing and often absurd; and “their” makes anyone cringe who treasures our mother tongue cringe.

    And I do not think people should rework their writing to evade a non-problem.

  29. As an editor, I allow the use of “they” as a gender-neutral, singular pronoun when it works better than alternatives or massive recasting. In addition, I weary of the use of “he.” Wake up. This is the 21st century. Life evolves. Language evolves. Stuffy academics need to embrace change. If our language is not flexible, our culture may stagnate.

  30. Wow Mark — great topic! Your readers share their opinions very eloquently…and there are two definite sides to this debate! The comments are excellent.

  31. Don’t forget that the singular “they” is inclusive of trans, genderqueer, and other nonbinary people, some of whom may not identify with “he” or “she” at all. “It,” on the other hand, is used for inanimate things, and totally inappropriate for any human who hasn’t explicitly stated it as an acceptable or preferred pronoun.

  32. The strict usage of male-specific pronouns isn’t “allegedly disenfranchising” or “possibly disenfranchising”; it IS disenfranchising. That’s a fact. To what degree may be more open to debate, but there’s a difference between a little problem and no problem at all, and shouldn’t we all strive to solve any problems we encounter in our lives and world around us, big or small?

    For those wishing there were gender-neutral pronouns; well, there ARE. Plenty of them, in fact. The ones I’ve heard most often are ze and hir (possessive), but a minute of research turned up several other pairings in use today. The fact that there are so many is probably a contributor as to why none of them have caught on particularly well. Of course, as this article so deftly points out; we already have one: they/their.

    There’s no reason not to adopt they/their as acceptable third person singular pronouns in both informal and formal use. Considering that “they/their” were common and accepted in formal, literary works predating the adoption of “he/his”, not even the typical Old Curmudgeon defense holds much water. They and their are by their very nature inclusive, and inclusivity is a different beast altogether from mere political correctness.

    Besides, if your readers are honestly confused as to whether you are using they/their in singular or plural forms, if your context is that vague, then you have more pressing problems than figuring out which pronoun to use.

  33. Recently our resident wordsmith and retired Newspaper Publisher with 40 years experience gave a talk to our speakers association wherein he covered the “his/her” vs “they” controversy.

    His take on it? “His or Her” is too awkward. As you pointed out, using “his” was common back when it was OK to write as if all the world were male. But when the consciousness changed and we started to include women, “his or her” became common.

    Thus the writing “rule” about his/her has essentially only been emphasized for about four decades. It interrupts the rhythm and cadence of good writing and it’s awkwardness borders on preening self-consciousness. To me it shouts, “Look at me! I’m gender conscious. I’m making sure everyone reading this is comfortable and everyone will notice I’m being inclusive.”

    IMHO being overly careful about political correctness with “his or her” steals energy from the piece and is rarely required. Not only is “they” singular, it’s used in every day conversation, and people understand what you mean.

    We have to remember English is a fluid language and use changes over time. Rigidly sticking to some rule you learned in the 3rd grade or found in a “Writing Rules” book is a silly reason to write awkward sentences.

  34. Nichol’s discussion overlooks the other convention of the inclusive pronoun, namely, the use of the feminine when speaking of collectives- the nation, the ship, the church. Such collectives are thought of as “carrying us,” a motherhood image, and requiring our submission and/or service. Feminists have failed to acknowledge this aspect of inclusive pronouns because it does not fit in with the paradigm of gender oppression corrected by politally correct speech.

  35. There are two reasons I use “they” instead of other choices.

    First, “they” is far less distracting than the awkwardness of he/she. I find all other forms to draw attention to gender, whereas, “they” is genderless, and so gender is not the distracting feature.

    Second, I use “they” as much as I can, because a dictionary is a *reflection* of language, not the determiner of it. The more “they” is used, the more it will become accepted (and less distracting, as I mention above.)

  36. Consensus does not make an opinion correct; it just makes it popular. And that is not the same thing at all. Using “they” as a singular pronoun is just plain lazy, and it belongs in the same waste bucket as “Please call Eric or myself if you have any questions concerning the contents of this letter.”

  37. No, no no! Oh, so eloquently argued, Mark, but, fluidity of language notwithstanding, sometimes incorrect is simply incorrect. Henry Higgins had a point–eloquence elevates, internally and externally. Then again, I lost the battle against “hopefully;” so whats do I knows?

  38. @Fizz: Yes, Cousin It comes to mind!
    @Wizard: If “We are they. We are them. We *are* the Men In Black,” does that mean the *are* the MIB too?!
    @Shari: OUCH, I hurt my eyes and almost barfed up my dinner reading your last sentence LOL! Where is the waste bucket?!

  39. When speaking and in casual writing, I use they. In formal writing, I use he or his. I find s/he, he or she, his or her, etc. abominations.

  40. I find “they” to be the best choice. “He/She” is unwieldy, especially when spoken and we must be aware that many written works need to be read aloud.

    For all those who object to the “ungrammatical” use of “they” as a singular pronoun, I suggest you also refrain from the use of “you” as a singular pronoun. “You” is plural, the second person singular is “thou” as anyone reading the Bard or the Authorised Version will observe.

  41. I can’t stomach “he/she” and “s/he.” “His or her” and variations quickly become cumbersome, as in
    “Each player should take his or her uniform to his or her home to wash before he or she plays in the next game.”

    Let’s look at this error closely.
    “Everyone wants to look their best.”

    When we parse this sentence, we find a singular subject, “everyone.” We also find a singular verb, “wants.” Thus, this incorrect example has a singular subject and singular verb and then, suddenly, switches to the plural “they.”

    Here’s another incorrect sentence: “Each member of the team completes their progress reports daily.” This, too, has a singular subject, a singular verb, and a plural pronoun.

    Happily, a careful writer does not need to rely on “they” (and variations) for the singular.

    I cannot accept the results of the poll because the poll is missing two strategies that will solve this problem, as follows.

    1. Use a plural antecedent: “Members of the team complete their progress reports daily.” This now has a plural subject, plural verb, and plural pronoun. Problem solved

    2. Remove the pronoun and revise as needed: “Each member of the team completes a progress report daily.” This now has a singular subject, singular verb, and no pronoun. Problem solved.

  42. Good Golly, fellas, ain’t we gonna just say that nothin’ is incorrect no more?

    With all due respect, I cannot agree with Mark and his supporters. There are two arguments used by pro-singular-they team, one being “get over it” and the other being “people talk like this anyway”. Neither appeals to me.

    Let’s face it – whatever uses might have there been for using they as singular by the classics, each instance of the use must be considered separately. Shakespeare used forms of thou in his writings, why shouldn’t we? And I long to meet someone who speaks in the language of Dickens or at least Jane Austin, apart from in BBC films 😉

    I can only say one thing to the purporters of singular they, basing solely on their being British. There are many expressions in Cockney English that will probably never find way into the written norm. Bernard Shaw has depicted brilliantly the transformation that correct language can work on a person.

    So, my general point is in the first sentence. Rebut it if you will.

  43. Language changes. If it didn’t, we would all be speaking Indo-European. There is a long history of the singular they. At some point it was decreed that a singular they was unacceptable. It truly has nothing to do with singular versus plural, it is treating someone’s decree as if it actually mattered. It is like the split infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition. There was nothing wrong with either of these, but some grammarian decreed it to be so, so people were taught that it was wrong. That doesn’t make it wrong forever, there is no authority who has the power to decree how the language must be used. Shakespeare used a singular they, Jane Austen used a singular they, the King James Bible used a singular they. They were not incorrect to do so, despite later decrees. And it isn’t wrong today. The alternatives don’t work. He or she is unwieldy, restructuring the sentence is awkward, and just going with he has obvious problems. Parroting “PC!” doesn’t make any point. Those who thought they controlled the language have been vetoed.

  44. @Friedl
    “Just be grateful that we’re not french, where ‘they’ has both a masculine & feminine form!”

    A good laugh, but French also has a gender-nonspecific third-person-singular pronoun–“l’on”–n’est-ce pas ? 🙂

    @various, re “you/your”–Thanks for bringing up the analogy. I don’t have much of an issue with singular “they,” but I do cringe at the reflexive “themselves” used as singular. How about following the “yourself” model and using “themself” in this context?

  45. After reading this LWD (Long-Winded Debate, pronounced “loud”), one might come away thinking that the nanophrase IMHO (impossible to pronounce) should be avoided when a better alternative, IMAHO (In My Absolutely Humble Opinion–pronounced “I’m a ho”), is available.

    And speaking of alternatives, I recommend that the pronoun combination “his or her or one’s or their” be used to keep everyone happy, except for the laziest, who might prefer the nanophrase HOHOOOT (pronounced “ho hoot”) as in the sentence, “The astronaut should put HOHOOOT helmet on quick!”

    But perhaps the simplest solution is to change the spelling of the singular “they” to “thay” and “their” to “thair,” allowing us to keep saying it like a Brit while letting our readers know we know better. If our singular astronaut really cares, thay will put thair helmet on quick.

    MSTIM (More Said Than I Meant–pronounced “missed ’em”)

    VSFA (Virtual Smiley Face Attached–goes without saying)

    YIKISHWQ (Yes, I know, I should have written quickly.)

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