The Singular They

"Everyone has their preference"—see anything wrong with that sentence? Neither do we

Word Nerd
Word Nerd

When I told friends and colleagues that I’d be writing a column on the controversy surrounding the singular they, I was met with one of two responses: those who were not familiar with this controversy exhibited a marked lack of interest in hearing anything more about it, while those who were familiar with it exhibited a marked lack of interest in hearing anything more about it. These people failed to realize two things: (a) grammar is exciting and important, and (b) a not-insignificant portion of the Internet is dedicated to carrying on heated discussions about grammar in general and the role and acceptability of the singular they in particular.

Strictly speaking, the authorities say, a singular antecedent demands a singular referent pronoun. A sentence such as “Everyone [singular antecedent] must do their [plural pronoun] best to care about grammar” is, therefore, completely unacceptable and almost certainly a sign of the insidious and deleterious effects that casual spoken English has had on well-turned, sophisticated prose. In order to avoid this solecism, writers and editors are expected to come up with suitable workarounds. The above example could be “fixed” by, say, changing it to “Everyone must do his or her best to care about grammar” or to “People must do their best to care about grammar.” Not all such sentences, though, are so easily put to rights, and most copy editors will admit to having spent a ludicrous amount of time over the course of their careers trying to purge texts of their singular theys.

In an attempt to be polite while at the same time avoiding sweeping statements, I originally kicked off this paragraph with “There are few compelling arguments in favour of maintaining the prohibition against the singular they.” But as the primary argument in support of its continued existence appears to be “Sure, the prohibition doesn’t make much sense, but you don’t want to look stupid, do you? Do you?” I have been forced to rewrite the topic sentence as follows: there are no compelling arguments in favour of the prohibition against the singular they—and there are plenty of solid arguments in favour of doing away with it.

Do you use thou when addressing one person and ye when addressing more than one? I will go ahead and answer that question for you: no, you do not. You do not do that, because you almost certainly do not speak Old English as a matter of course. But the thou/ye distinction makes a certain amount of sense (although I am by no means arguing for its reinstatement), in that the pronoun chosen corresponds with the number of people on the receiving end of it. We now blithely and unquestioningly use you all the time, although it can be both singular and plural and is the same in both subject and object forms (unlike I/me, she/her, etc.). To adopt the singular they would not be to introduce a note of chaos into an otherwise consistent, self-contained system: the world of English pronouns is already a muddled one, and one more officially sanctioned idiosyncrasy would not prove fatal.

Indeed, for hundreds of years, writers—many of them Great and Esteemed and Generally Well-Respected—happily and casually threw around the singular they. Shakespeare did it. Jane Austen did it. George Eliot and Charles Dickens did it. But at some point a few centuries ago, common usage and common sense came up against an insurmountable foe: the determined Latinist. Don’t get me wrong. I am extremely fond of Latinists. Some of my best friends are Latinists (my father is, in fact, a Latinist). But eighteenth- and nineteenth-century grammarians who really loved Latin tried to channel that love into making English as much like Latin as possible. It is because of them that sentence-ending prepositions and split infinitives became verboten, and it is likely because of their Latin-fancying proclivities that the singular they became viewed as a linguistic barbarity.

What such authorities had no problem with at all was the generic he, as in “Everyone must do his best to care about grammar.” That was because, as American grammarian Josephine Turck Baker explained in 1899, “The masculine embraces the feminine, even in grammar.” He could magically stand in for everyone and so became the recommended they-avoiding fix until it was discovered that many women did not want to be grammatically embraced in such a way.

He or she or he/she was the next solution to be proffered and then found wanting. It somehow manages to fail on both stylistic and functional grounds. It is clunky, awkward, and distracting; it also tries to make up for the prior exclusion of the “feminine” by excluding a whole new group of people—those who identify as genderqueer, non-gendered, gender-fluid.

So if great writers have done it, if English is already kind of a mess, if the alternatives to it are cumbersome or exclusionary or both, why isn’t everyone racing to embrace it?

Well, many people are. Most style guides (if grudgingly at times) will concede that the singular they is here to stay. The Washington Post now officially accepts it. The Baltimore Sun has been consciously allowing it to slip through. The American Dialect Society even proclaimed the singular they as its 2015 word of the year. “Really the only thing standing between its acceptance and the usage that we see is that editors edit it out,” Emily Brewster, an associate editor with Merriam-Webster, said last year in an interview with Poynter.

After careful consideration and a comprehensive analysis of the arguments for it (of which there are many) and against it (of which there are none), we at The Walrus have decided to stop editing it out. And if anyone reading this is irked, confounded, enraged, or disappointed, we’d love to hear from them.

Sarah Sweet
Sarah Sweet (@catastrophizer) is the magazine's copy editor.