Elle Boca, a dear author friend of mine, went through my Beats manuscript with a fine comb (for which I can’t thank her enough).
Most of her comments I readily accepted. To my surprise, however, she repeatedly complained about my use of singular they, which she assumed were typos.
This prompted this post, as I’m curious to hear what you think.
What is Singular They?
Wikipedia defines singular they as the use in English of the pronoun they, or its inflected or derivative forms, such as them, their, themself, or themselves, as a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to a single person or an antecedent that is grammatically singular. It typically occurs with an antecedent of indeterminate gender, as in sentences such as:
- “Somebody left their umbrella in the office. Would they please collect it?”
- “The patient should be told at the outset how much they will be required to pay.”
- “But a journalist should not be forced to reveal their sources.”
Is it a mistake?
Short answer, no. The singular they had emerged by the 14th century and is common in everyday spoken English. However, its use has been the target of criticism since the late 19th century, even as its use in formal English has increased with the trend toward gender-neutral language. Some traditionalists argue that to use “they” in the singular is a grammatical error, even though there is a counter argument that “they”, “their”, and “them” have long been grammatically acceptable as gender-neutral singular pronouns in English.
In a sense, this is a lose-lose situation: when the gender is unknown, we are forced to make one of two possible mistakes. As linguist John M. Lawler points out, you can use “he” generically, which violates the Rule of Grammar that says that he is masculine, and therefore can’t be used with a feminine reference. This violates a Gender Agreement rule:
Once the patient is prepped, he should be moved into the delivery room.
On the other hand, you can use “they” generically, which violates the Rule of Grammar that says that they is Plural, and therefore can’t be used with a singular reference. This violates a Number Agreement rule:
Once the patient is prepped, they should be moved into the delivery room.
So, we have two conventional solutions that violate one Rule of Grammar each and therefore offend some people. Which people will be incensed depends on which Rule of Grammar is being violated. The people who get upset about violating Rule 1, the gender agreement rule, tend to be women and men who don’t feel like excluding women.
The people who get upset about violating Rule 2, the number agreement rule, on the other hand, tend to be people who are unaware of singular they (and the respective debate).
British vs. American English
It is interesting to note that American English seems to be becoming less tolerant of it than British English. For example, in the 14th edition (1993) of The Chicago Manual of Style, the University of Chicago Press explicitly recommended use of singular use of they and their, noting a “revival” of this usage and citing “its venerable use by such writers as Addison, Austen, Chesterfield, Fielding, Ruskin, Scott, and Shakespeare.” However, the 15th and 16th editions recommend against it in formal use, for fear that readers will doubt your literacy.
In Britain, however, informal spoken English exhibits nearly universal use of the singular they. An examination by Jürgen Gerner of the British National Corpus published in 1998 found that British speakers regardless of social status, age, sex, or region used the singular they overwhelmingly more often than the gender-neutral he or other options.
The one thing I hate about being an Indie author is that people assume you haven’t properly edited your book when they see a grammar form they’re unfamiliar with. Such is the case with singular they.
Still, there are just two basic rules we absolutely need to remember when writing:
- Writing is all about style; and
- Grammar is all about clarity.
As long as people understand what you’re saying, feel free to use whichever style you find preferable. As for me, singular they is an elegant (dare I say, beautiful?) solution to the question of gender; certainly more elegant than writing “he or she” or the awkward “s/he.” Plus, who would want to exclude women?
So, if anyone tells you off for using singular they, just refer them to this post!
In January, The Washington Post announced that singular they was the word of the year, 2015. Also, The Post’s style guide ratified this usage in December 2015. As Post copy editor Bill Walsh explained, the singular they is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”
Many thanks to Lorelei Logsdon for the link!
On an unrelated note, I’m thinking of changing themes for my blog, so it may be down for a few days. While the update is under way, please visit the alternative address.
Terrific post. I agree ‘they’ is fully acceptable in British English, not sure about US English, but my argument is, it’s a lot better than that awful ‘he/she’ you occasionally see in its place!
I know, right??
I tend to write as I speak and it is common usage in English speech to use ‘they’. Lord knows I have my failings as a writer when it comes to formalised grammar.. however as an avid reader of thousands of books I tend to be far more offended by lack the lack of a plot, believable characters, flow, accuracy, engagement, pace and downright good storytelling. I don’t think that I have read a grammatically perfect book but I have read thousands of perfectly stunning stories.
Great way to remind us of what really matters. As I always say, don’t let your writing get in the way of your story 🙂
Such an excellent post Nicholas, thank you. I’m sure all writers can relate. I always tend to get stumped when it comes to writing he/she or they. I don’t like he, especially when the subject is feminine, and he/she, well, you know. I’m so with you on the singular they! 🙂
Thanks! We do seem to be the majority 😀
A great post, Nicholas. I have always preferred the singular “they.”
It does feel rather nice to say that in the open, doesn’t it? :b
Honestly, I avoid singular pronouns at all costs as a writer and an editor because most times it’s not accurate, jumps out as awkward, and often times it’s important to emphasize the singular or plural. I see nothing wrong with saying he or she when necessary or for emphasis. And there are ways to recast a sentence or rewrite it.
“Somebody left their umbrella in the office. Would they please collect it?” This is wrong because “they” didn’t leave it. One umbrella is left by somebody. Why muddy it up with they? Rewrite as: Somebody left an umbrella in the office. Please stop by and collect it.
“The patient should be told at the outset how much they will be required to pay.” Rewrite as: Patients should be told at the outset how much they will be required to pay.” Isn’t the meaning of the sentence that all patients are required to pay and not just one?
“But a journalist should not be forced to reveal their sources.” Rewrite as: But a journalist should not be forced to reveal a source. Or … But journalists should not be forced to reveal their sources. Or, But a journalist should not be forced to reveal sources.
Sure, you can rewrite around it, as you so adequately demonstrate. But where’s the fun in that? 😉
It’s almost always possible to rework the sentence, in my experience. In the singular, they seems a sloppy and poorly thought out usage.
Ouch. Oh well, we singular-they-fans forgive you 😀
I agree, Helen, rework the sentence is always the better option.
I have always used singular “they”; it’s what I’ve always known from reading and schooling. The idea of a singular “he” just seems so awkward – I would always want to assume it’s referring to a man/male figure and not an unidentified person in general.
Exactly my problem, too!
Excellent post and truthfully, I had no idea readers cared that much. lol! I’ve never been personally flamed for using singular they and personally learned while at university when and how to use it.
My honest opinion is as long as it doesn’t take the reader out of the story, it’s okay to use. Chicago Manual of Style is my Grammar Bible and since they state it’s okay to use it or not, that’s how I roll (see what I did there).
I’ve been reading a lot of historical (read British) fiction recently and am fascinated by the beauty of language. British English rolls off the tongue so easily and I love reading it.
Thank you for the solid background, Nick. I can always count on you to showcase all sides of a grammar debate. 😉
Aw, you! Thank you 🙂
I struggle with the singular they, Nicholas. It usually (not always) sounds odd to me. I’ll tend to change the sentence before going with a singular they, either changing it to plural – “Once patients are prepped, they should be moved into the delivery room.” or being specific about who the “someone” is – “Once the woman is prepped, she should be moved…” All context driven of course. It’s a tough one, because the default to “he” is irksome too.
For me, it’s the best choice in a bunch of poor ones. The politically-correct “she” seems forced to me. And don’t get me started on “he or she” and “s/he”!
Of course, reworking your work around it is the simplest way out 🙂
I’ve been called out on using the singular they as well, and usually just found another way to word things. I didn’t know I had experts who agreed – i think it’s very telling that the Chicago Manual of Style has endorsed both sides.
The funniest thing to me, though, is at the end of the “singular you” text in the Twitter post. Did you notice the last sentence ends with a preposition? 🙂
Lol – I hadn’t until now 😀
Interesting post. It seems to me that the use of the singular they nowadays is dependent on the level of formality of the writing. Most formal–can’t use it. Otherwise, ok.
Which is funny, considering that a mere 10 years ago it used to be the other way around 🙂
Never even knew this was a thing, but I do remember being yelled at a few years back about using it. The person didn’t mention ‘singular they’, but went on about it being insulting in regards to gender. I kind of do a middle of the road thing now. I use ‘he or she’ in narration and ‘they’ in dialogue since that sounds like how a person would talk. One thing I’ve learned is that a good amount of grammar rules seem to fall in and out of favor. Language seems to be a lot more fluid and personalized than we think. The main point should be getting everything across and having the rules remain consistent throughout the work. Ever wonder if we take things so seriously that we miss the fun?
I wonder about that all the time 😀
Ah, the Internet. Always a useful platform for pointless argument. I am sticking with ‘they’ and ignoring the carping.
Best wishes, Pete.
Lol – well put 😀
Thank you – sometimes the singular is appropriate sometimes not?
Absolutely. The point here is that it’s not a mistake to use it.
Interesting post! I find myself using more and more the PC “she” instead of “they” when the gender is unknown. I think this form is also gaining traction.
It is more politically correct, for sure, and won’t get you in trouble!
That is a great article, Nicholas, and very good points. There are times when nothing else will do but to use the singular “they” – and there should not be any debate about it.
I completely agree. I’ve been using it forever, but only recently realized just how much of a debate surrounds it.
Very interesting. My editor also corrected my singular ‘they’ to ‘he or she.’ She uses the Chicago Manual of Style. I like ‘they’ – I think it’s usually quite clear, so thanks for the info – good to know there are choices.
Oh, yes, there are choices. Indeed, the problem here is having too many of them 😀
Nicholas, thanks for clarifying the use of they. I hadn’t thought of it as a mistake. However, there’s quite a debate (pros & cons) in the grammar books. I’ll pay more attention to it’s use now. ? Christine Elizabeth
It is interesting to note that it’s only relatively recently that the debate has started in earnest. Must be the Internet 😉
I think the debate has been going for quite a while, but we’re more aware of it because of the internet!
Ah, yes, the internet. Where would be without pointless debates and flame wars 😀