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Singular they

Q From Norm Brust; related questions came from too many people to list: I quote you in your piece on freegan: “A person...who eats only what they can get for nothing.” Is your use of they simply an agreement error or have you adopted it as a way to finesse the he/she problem?

A So many subscribers have written (many of them denouncing me as an enemy of literacy) that a note about the usage would seem timely as an elaboration of a piece I wrote about gender-neutral pronouns some years ago. To include an example of the form in a review of Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage on 3 January (“I would recommend it to anyone in any country who is interested in improving the quality of their English”) may have been unintentionally provocative.

However, I shall nail my colours to the mast and say that these and similar usages are now so common as to be unremarkable, are now considered standard by most usage guides, and pass unchallenged by many copy editors. Objection to the form, however, is greater in the United States than elsewhere — most of the criticism has come from Americans.

Those who deprecate this form argue that a pronoun must agree in number with the noun to which it refers. The rule has been drummed into generations of schoolchildren by teachers who are quite sure that it exists.

Unfortunately, it’s not the way that reputable writers have used they, their and them down the centuries. It is possible to find examples of such pronouns used with singular nouns at least as far back as Chaucer. The problem is that English doesn’t have a gender-neutral pronoun to cope with those cases in which we know little about the person being referred to. Many writers have happily got around this by using they and its relatives as indefinite pronouns, especially after words such as anyone, everyone, someone and no one.

Our modern confusion stems from eighteenth-century grammarians who analysed English according to the structures of Latin and imposed stringent and irrelevant rules (such as the one about not splitting infinitives) that have bedevilled everybody since. In this case, they proposed that he should instead be the standard in cases in which the sex of the person referred to isn’t known. It isn’t only writers of the past half century who have found that to be invidiously sexist, though the trend towards gender equality has made it increasingly indefensible.

Every reputable style guide I’ve consulted says that the supposed rule doesn’t conform to the way people actually use the language and that they and its relatives are becoming accepted even in the most formal prose. Robert Burchfield, in the Third Edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, says, “It begins to look as if the use of an indefinite third person singular is now passing unnoticed by standard speakers (except those trained in traditional grammar).” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage remarks that “They, their, them have been used continuously in singular reference for about six centuries, and have been disparaged in such use for about two centuries. Now the influence of social forces is making their use even more attractive.” Bryan Garner is more equivocal: “Depending on how you look at it, this is either one of the most frequent blunders in modern writing or a godsend that allows us to avoid sexism.”

As you will have gathered, I take the latter view.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 7 Feb. 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 7 February 2004.