If you ever want to impress an editor at a party, sidle up to them and whisper in their ear, “What do you think of singular ‘they’?” If they’re anything like me, they have an opinion they’d just love to share.
What is singular “they”?
“They” is a pronoun. It is formally considered a plural pronoun, meaning it refers to more than one person. Some grammarians insist that this is the only correct usage – that it’s wrong to use “they” (and its relatives “them”, “their”, “theirs” and “themselves”) for just one person. So instead of saying this:
Do you let your teenager stay out as late as they want?
They would say this:
Do you let your teenager stay out as late as he or she wants?
Or they would use “he” to refer to both males and females:
Do you let your teenager stay out as late as he wants?
Or, since the above usage is (quite rightly) considered sexist now, they would pointedly use “she” to refer to both males and females:
Do you let your teenager stay out as late as she wants?
Despite grammar sticklers’ best efforts, though, singular “they” is – and has always been – part of English common usage. Writers were using it as far back as the 14th century. We see it in the work of Shakespeare, Austen, Defoe, Byron, Dickens and Thackeray. Obama has used it in speeches.
It sounds so natural to most of us that we don’t even realise we’re using, hearing or reading it. Did you notice that I used “them” and “they” five times in the first paragraph of this blog post to refer to “an editor”, singular? Here’s how clunky that paragraph would have sounded had I used “correct” grammar:
If you ever want to impress an editor at a party, sidle up to him or her and whisper in his or her ear, “What do you think of singular ‘they’?” If he or she is anything like me, he or she has an opinion he or she would just love to share.
The non-binary factor
The debate over singular “they” has intensified in recent years as more people openly identify as non-binary – that is, neither male nor female. The Canadian writer Ivan Coyote, who toured New Zealand last month, has given many great interviews about their reasons for wanting to be referred to by gender-neutral pronouns. On their Facebook page, they write:
I use the pronoun they, and the added respect and feeling “seen” when people get it right feels so good and accurate and true to me. I really appreciate those people who ask, who learn it and then do it, especially when they just do it and don’t turn it into a production.
As a writer/editor, it’s your choice whether you accept “they” in sentences like “Do you let your teenager stay out as late as they want?”. Often you won’t have to make this choice, because your boss or style guide will instruct you. But – and I feel really strongly about this – we must use “they” for people who prefer it, always. Respect and inclusivity trump grammar.
What do the style guides say?
Most modern authorities have embraced the use of “they” for non-binary people. When it comes to generic usage (“Do you let your teenager stay out as late as they want?”), they’re not so enthusiastic. AP and Chicago fall short of banning singular “they” altogether, but they recommend trying to rewrite the sentence to avoid pronouns altogether (“Do you give your teenager a curfew?”). In the humble opinion of Coles & Lopez, they’re fighting a losing battle: “they” is here to stay.