Monthly Archives: April 2015

Everything you ever wanted to know about singular “they”

Some people don’t like the singular, gender-neutral use of “they” (along with “them”, “their” etc.):

  • They hung up without saying anything.
  • Who finished their work first?
  • If anyone forgets their hat, you’ll have to leave them out of the photo.
  • Nobody who cares about their future can ignore this.

The objection is:

“They” and its cousins are plural and can’t be singular. The first two of the sentences above are about a single person, so they’re just wrong. The other two may be about several people, but “anyone” and “nobody” are still singular words (we say “anybody is”, not “anybody are”), so they’re still ungrammatical. While the traditional generic “he” can seem odd or sexist, and “he or she” can be clumsy, that doesn’t mean we should break the logical rule that separates singular from plural.

If you’re inclined to agree, I’d like to try to convince you otherwise. It’s fine to dislike singular “they”, but maybe you needn’t worry about it so much.

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Pronouns are a mess, but they’re a familiar mess

Here’s a simple, irrefutable proof that a pronoun can be both singular and plural: “you”.

We gave up on the distinction between singular “thou” and plural “you” centuries ago, and it hasn’t done us any harm. This means the so-called logical objection to singular “they” is wrong.

In fact, logic is a poor guide to English pronouns, which are an inconsistent mess:

  • Most have different subject and object forms – “I” and “me”, “he” and “him”, “she” and “her”, “we” and “us”, “they” and “them” – but “you” is both subject and object.
  • Third-person singular pronouns vary by gender – “he” and “she”, “him” and “her” – but other pronouns don’t.
  • Reflexive pronouns are irregular: “myself”, “yourself”, “herself” and “ourselves” are formed from the possessive “my”, “your”, “her” and “our” – but then instead of “hisself” and “theirselves”, we have “himself” and “themselves”.

Our pronouns are deeply illogical, but we don’t notice this because we’re so familiar with them.

And there’s another oddity. “We”, “us” and “our” can be, and often are, singular:

“Each one of us will have our own special triumphs or tragedies to look back on.”

Here, “each one of us” is singular, but the following possessive is “our”. This is natural and clear – and grammatical (spoken by someone with unimpeachable command of the Queen’s English).

We’ve all come across this sort of thing many, many times, but we haven’t been trained to find it illogical, so we don’t. We don’t even notice it. Google “singular we” and you’ll find pretty much nothing; Google “singular they” and you’ll tumble into a vortex of angry pedantry.

This shows that dislike of singular “they” isn’t a natural, logical reaction to a real grammatical mistake; it’s an artificial constraint that takes effort to internalise.

A third-person version of that sentence would be:

“Each one of them will have their own special triumphs or tragedies to look back on.”

Equally natural and clear – and grammatical.

“You” can be singular as well as plural, which everyone accepts. “We” can be singular as well as plural, which no one notices. “They” can also be singular as well as plural, and the only problem is the people who believe it’s a problem.

Let’s meet a couple of them. Continue reading

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