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Singular ‘They,’ Again

they copyThis week, I was at a dinner party with a dozen or so accomplished journalists. There are many things I enjoy about hanging out with journalists, including (but in no way limited to): (a) they ask interesting and surprising questions, and (b) they really care about language. Somewhere between the main course and dessert, the host asked me, “What would you say is the most contentious grammatical issue in recent history?”

On a different evening, while I think I would have come to the same answer, I might have paused over the possibility of the split infinitive or the Oxford comma or the use of I for me (e.g., between you and I). But my brain immediately jumped to the write-up I had just read of the American Copy Editor Society (ACES) conference at the end of March. To quote Wall Street Journal columnist Ben Zimmer, who is quoted at the beginning of the article, “It feels like at every session I’ve attended, singular ‘they’ has come up.”

And like magic, as soon as I said “singular they,” a lively debate broke out around the table about whether or not they can refer to an individual person, be that a person of unspecified or unknown gender or a person who identifies as transgender and/or as outside the male-female binary. Lucy Ferriss’s post on singular they earlier this week also sparked a spirited exchange in the comments. (And the fact that two of us who write for Lingua Franca felt inspired to post on singular they in a week speaks to how regularly the issue continues to come up in the news.)

I will not reiterate here the arguments that I, my fellow blogger Geoff Pullum, and many others have made in defense of singular they—many of which are also captured in the article about the ACES conference. I am struck by the wording of critics who ponder whether the pronoun they “can be” singular. Given the evidence of widespread use of singular they for centuries, the question makes no sense. Clearly speakers can and do use the pronoun they as a singular (e.g., Someone who knows where they’re going should drive, or My neighbor washes their car every day). It is not a debatable question.

If we’re going to debate the use of singular they, let’s focus on debatable questions. For example, is it too ambiguous? Or, is it too informal? Both of these issues come up in the online comments on the article about the ACES conference.

In terms of ambiguity, I will make three points. First, in many instances, we employ singular they exactly because the gender of the antecedent noun (the person we are referring to) is unknown or irrelevant; the ambiguity about gender, therefore, is intentional. And there is usually no ambiguity about number: In a sentence like My neighbor washes their car every day, it is unambiguous that I am talking about one person, and that person is my neighbor. Second, in the cases where there genuinely is ambiguity about the referent of singular they (e.g., I was talking to my mother and her friend, and they said … ), rewrite the sentence. It is important to note that this kind of ambiguity can arise with any pronoun (e.g., I was talking to my mother and her friend, and she said … ); it is not unique to singular they.  Third, when they is the preferred pronoun of transgender or genderqueer individuals or anyone else, the meaning of the pronoun is not ambiguous: It means that the person does not identify as he or she. Perhaps you are someone who prefers ze to they in this case, but that does not make they ambiguous.

The question of informality is intriguing and potentially circular. Singular they often does feel more informal because it is characteristic of spoken language and informal written language, not formal written language. It is not in formal written language because many style guides tell us we shouldn’t do that — for many reasons, one of which is sometimes that the pronoun is too informal. One of the only ways for singular they to become recognized as both formal and informal is to allow its use in formal edited prose (as some editors are starting to do). The circularity becomes apparent.

I thoroughly enjoy these debates about grammar, especially when we clarify exactly what’s in question. Calling singular they “bad grammar,” as the Princeton Review did recently (and got called out for it in an adroit piece in The Guardian), unproductively dismisses the actual grammar of many, many English speakers. It’s not a question of  whether this pronoun can be singular; it’s more accurately a question of whether we should and will let they be used in its singular form in formal, edited prose without comment. That decision is within our control.

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