The Singular They: A Prescriptivist’s Dream

Zombie

By Karin Cather

Editor & Ghostwriter

Published October 20, 2020

When someone goes to the store, they should wear a mask so they don’t spread COVID-19.

They?

Yes, they. Because it’s the correct singular pronoun to use when you don’t know the gender of the person you’re talking about or when you could be talking about any of them. Usage of the singular they is both old-fashioned and new, both at the same time.[1]

The Prohibition is a Zombie Rule

What’s a zombie rule? They are rules that aren’t but won’t die. According to Geoffrey Pullum, a linguistics professor and co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, “Though dead, they shamble mindlessly on.” David Marsh, who teaches a grammar master class for the Guardian, lists some of them, including, for example, the familiar prohibition against the split infinitive. To give you an idea of the bizarre logic of some of these zombie rules, this horror of split infinitives comes from a Latin fetish. Latin used to be the language of the educated, and so, the logic goes, English should imitate Latin, and so, the logic goes, the use of English infinitives should mirror Latin ones. But Latin present infinitives are one word long.[2] Logic is nowhere to be found.

Guilty also of this kind of nonsense is the unbearable Strunk & White.[3] The authors violate their own rules throughout their own book and recommend a prose so arid it might as well be a recipe. (A discussion of writer’s guides to grammar, usage, punctuation, and other mechanics is beyond the scope of this blog post, but start with Dreyer’s English.)

What’s the logic behind the default he? Blame the Victorians, who believed that men were the default people and women were too childlike and weak to act on their own.

The Queen is most anxious to enlist every one who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of “Woman’s Rights”, with all its attendant horrors, on which her poor feeble sex is bent, forgetting every sense of womanly feeling and propriety… It is a subject which makes the Queen so furious that she cannot contain herself. God created men and women different – then let them remain each in their own position.’ (Queen Victoria, letter 29 May 1870)

Today, of course, that ideal is mostly dead. Thus, most people know that using he all the time is problematic. So they begin to twist their writing unnaturally and even awkwardly, using one, alternating he and she every paragraph, he or she, or (just don’t) s/he.[4] It doesn’t need to be that complicated. Use they. It will not be a sign that the Great Unlettered have successfully corrupted the English language one social media comment at a time. It will not bring on the Apocalypse. The statues won’t weep. Libraries won’t spontaneously combust. You’ll just have used a pronoun so innocuous many readers won’t even notice it.

The prohibition against they is artificial and only about two hundred years old. People who hate the singular they often can’t remember exactly where they learned the prohibition, but, much like those urban legends about the scuba diver sucked into the aerial water bomber or person surviving a fall in a plummeting elevator by jumping at the last minute, or the word news coming from north, east, west, and south, the story sounds true, so it must be, and so they think it’s a fact.

Or worse, they don’t like it, so they think it must be wrong.

The problem is that people who oppose the singular they have short memories. Or why don’t they insist that it’s wrong to say you to more than one person when it was supposed to be ye?

The Singular They
Used with permission. Kory Stamper is a lexicographer and author of Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. She once worked for Merriam­-Webster.

The Singular They Is Traditional English

Turning our attention to back to they, linguist James Harbeck points out that

for centuries, English speakers used they for gender-indeterminate third person singular, and no one complained.

For centuries? Oh yes – pretty much until about 1800, in fact. You can find it in the King James version of the Bible: ‘Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves’ (Philippians 2:3). You can find it in Shakespeare: ‘There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me, As if I were their well-acquainted friend’ (Comedy of Errors IV:iii). It was common and unexceptional.”

Tom Chivers, who is the assistant comment editor for the Daily Telegraph, wrote,

What’s particularly interesting is that if you go to the Google Books “Ngram Viewer”, you can see that the phrase “everybody has their” was more common than “everybody has his” in books up until about 1850, and then they stayed roughly comparable until 1870 or so, whereupon “everybody has his” took a two-century lead.

Literary giants who used they include Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and Oscar Wilde.

What’s Wrong With Just Using He?

Why not just use he? Consider these sentences: Before a writer seeks to publish, he should hire a professional editor. Almost half of you are female. (I say almost because some people identify themselves as transgender or gender fluid.) Why make all but those who identify as male have to tell themselves, But she means me, too? Then there’s this type of problem: When a student wishes to become a virologist, he should take science courses as an undergraduate. We default to men for an entire profession. Those who are not male have just been bumped out of the writing and have to readjust their thinking before they proceed. Oh. The guidance counselor is talking about me too. Or they have to decide that in 2020 (at the time of this writing) the author doesn’t mean to exclude women. One of the biggest challenges for writers is to keep readers engaged. When you bump them out of the manuscript because they have to make a mental adjustment, you at least for the moment disengage the reader.

I’ll be direct and admit that I don’t care whether the usage is as old as it really is or whether it is new, and I’m a prescriptivist by nature. In other words, I believe that grammatical rules should be followed unless there is a reason not to. That means that I believe that apostrophes don’t belong in plural nouns just because a lot of people haven’t absorbed the difference between six ocelots and six ocelot’s in the local zoo.

In contrast, descriptivists might say they is fine because that’s what people are using anyway. Some would even agree that pregnate for pregnant is fine too and to hell with the word its. Of course there are gradations of descriptivist thinking. Anyway, I agree with descriptivists that the language should change when refusing to let it change serves no purpose or is detrimental to communication.

But when it comes to pronouns, the needs of the English language have changed. You could try to work around the problem by using an alternative, even if the alternative is cumbersome and ponderous (like using s/he, or even some totally made-up pronoun altogether), but why? We need the singular they because today we don’t want to automatically exclude at least half the population when we write or speak.

What’s interesting about the singular they is that there is a basis for descriptivists and prescriptivists to agree.

What Do Other Authorities Say?

More and more style guides and other authorities have embraced the singular theyThe Washington Post did so in 2015. In 2016, Anne Curzan, a keynote speaker at the ACES: The Society for Editing, a linguist and professor of English at the University of Michigan, suggested that you ask yourself why you aren’t allowing it. “Because I don’t think people notice it,” she said. This is, interestingly, a good point, and it’s worth listening to speakers in formal contexts, because many of the same people who won’t accept it in print will use it, themselves.

In 2016, a managing editor from the New York Times pointed out in the Columbia Journalism Review that “Though people have been using what’s called the ‘epicene they’ for hundreds of years, grammarians started demonizing it more than 100 years ago.”

Also in 2016, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor used the singular they in a published Supreme Court opinion: “‘Section 2252(b)(2)’s list is hardly the way an average person, or even an average lawyer, would set about to describe the relevant conduct if they had started from scratch.’ (Lockhart v. United States, 136 S. Ct. 958, 966 (2016)).”

In 2017, the AMA Style Insider, the voice of the AMA style guide, grudgingly accepted it, saying that

The AMA Manual of Style will follow suit with the next edition, allowing the use of plural pronouns with singular indefinite antecedents (eg, Everyone allocates their time) in an effort to avoid sex-specific pronouns and awkward sentence structure.

Even though there’s more flexibility with the singular they than before, in most cases rewording usually is possible and still always preferable, especially in formal writing.

In 2019, the American Psychological Association revised their style guide, which is used by a good proportion of the academic (and forensic) world. APA 6th is no more; long live APA 7th:

Big changes are afoot! APA endorses the use of “they” as a singular third-person pronoun in the seventh edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. This means it is officially good practice in scholarly writing to use the singular “they.”

Also in 2019, the Michigan Bar Journal ratified the singular they: “The flexibility gained is in avoiding the clumsy he or she, capturing collective nouns with increased comfort, and respecting those who prefer a gender-neutral pronoun. Attorneys, as wordsmiths, should embrace these changes, or at least begin to.”

In 2020, the Modern Language Association endorsed the use of the singular they. No, that’s not entirely accurate: “the MLA encourages writers to accept its use to avoid making or enabling assumptions about gender.” [emphasis added]

Not, however The New Yorker.

Gael Spivak, former president of the Executive Council of Editors Canada, has compiled a reference list of authorities that the singular they is proper and grammatical.

So Here We Are

The singular they has been around longer than it hasn’t and is accepted more often than it’s not. It’s so natural that people who claim they hate it use it themselves without noticing. If you are an editor, and you don’t like the singular they, then by all means don’t use it in your own writing. But your personal objection to the singular they doesn’t provide you with a professional justification for changing it in someone else’s work. If you are author, go ahead and use it — In fact, you probably should without more.

_________________________________________
[1] This blog post was initially written in 2016, but it was revised in 2017, 2019, and 2020 to keep up with developments.

[2] Thank you, Mrs. Sleeper, Herndon High School Latin teacher (and one of my three best teachers ever). And thank you, random Monty Python centurion, for the discussion of the Latin word for go; I needed the review.

[3] Pullum, Geoffrey K. 2009. “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.” Chronicle Review, April 17, 2009. http://www.lel.ed.ac.uk/~gpullum/50years.pdf

[4] Each use of s/he should be punishable by having to sit in a room and listen to five hundred repetitions of Paul Anka’s “You’re Havin My Baby.”

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18 Comments

  1. susanedits

    Yes to all of this.

    I review the work of copyeditors for a publishing services company. Over and over again, I’ve asked them not to automatically convert every singular “they” into “he or she.” I wonder how many of them agree with me in principle but fear that somebody will think they haven’t made the correction because they don’t understand the rule.

    My solution: on first use, comment that some readers may object to singular “they,” but that I think it’s fine and I’m not changing it.

    Reply
    • Karin Cather

      Unless there is an explicit prohibition in an in-house style guide, I’ll correct to they with a note to the author in the query box. The author can reject changes, of course, because it’s their work. I generally explain counterintuitive changes, anyway.

      Reply
  2. Sharon Stewart

    My thoughts exactly (and I’ll admit that it took me a few decades to get there).

    Reply
    • Karin Cather

      I’ve been trying for almost two different courses to convert my copyediting professor to my way of thinking. So far without success. But I may be corrupting persuading my classmates. By the time we finish the program, I may have my classmates totally using they.

      Reply
  3. Sally Brodsky

    Very nice job. The things I hate, however, is “meet up” when “meet” would do very nicely. “Switch out”, blech! Why isn’t “Switch” preferable?

    Reply
    • Karin Cather

      Core competencies. Make it stop!

      Reply
  4. Sally Brodsky

    Whoops! The things I hate…ARE. Or, The thing I hate IS.

    Reply
    • Karin Cather

      I am not a WordPress pro. But I think you can edit your comments. Anyone?

      Reply
  5. Xina Broussali

    Karin, this is an amazing blog and so mobile-friendly. Re editing comments on WordPress blogs – I think that one has to have admin permissions to go in and edit comments once posted. That’s the way the work site I oversee is set up anyway. But I’m no expert either. 😉

    Reply
    • Karin Cather

      Thank you! Claire Conant was the one who initially designed the page. I’m doing the blog posting myself. I want to go in and edit some of the website content, but I’m going to have to wait until I know what I’m doing and won’t crash the whole website. Or break the Internet.

      Reply
  6. Claire Conant

    Hi Karin – so glad you are getting comments here. You can edit your page content the same way you would edit a blog post. Just go to the Pages in your WordPress dashboard, and choose edit. 🙂 Easy peasy. Let me know if you get stuck.

    Reply
  7. A Lees

    What’s wrong with:
    ‘When you need an editor, you should hire me.’
    ‘People who need an editor should hire me.’
    ?

    Reply
    • Karin Cather

      Nothing is wrong with your choices. Mine is correct, as well.

      Reply
    • Gael

      Neither of those would take the singular they.

      “Everyone should take their books when they leave” (instead of “Everyone should take his or her books when they leave”) is an example of the singular they.

      Reply
  8. Xina Broussali

    Excellent article, Karin. I’ve circulated it to a few colleagues who are still insisting on “he/ she”. I hope that will help them see the light.

    Reply
  9. Joan MacLeod Heminway

    I appreciate this article and the updates. I learned and was held accountable for applying many “Zombie rules” in my secondary education. It’s nice to be able to label them.

    Also, not to be picky (and I may be missing something), but it looks like the first, indented Sotomayor quote uses “they” for a plural subject, “Defendants.” I am just noting this for accuracy’s sake.

    Reply
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