22 May 2021

"If a person reads TYWKIWDBI regularly, they will learn something"

Is there anything wrong with the title of this post (grammatically)?  My high school English teacher, Mr. Glenn, would have severely reprimanded me for using "they" as a singular pronoun.

That was then, this is now.  The singular "they" is here and increasingly popular.

The redoubtable Anne Fadiman, author of Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, has written an essay for Harper's entitled "All My Pronouns: How I learned to live with the singular they."  Herewith some salient excerpts.
When it comes to language, splitters are almost always prescriptivists, who favor rules and standards (this is how people should talk) rather than descriptivists, who favor popular usage (this is how people actually talk)... Prescriptivists have been called (usually by descriptivists, but sometimes, as a preemptive strike, by themselves) elitists, killjoys, curmudgeons, cops, cranks, peevers, fussbudgets, intransigents, old farts, linguistic nitpickers, usage nerds, compulsive pedants, logobullies, syntax snobs, and grammar fascists. Descriptivists have been called style smashers, corrupters, miscreants, barbarians, vulgarians, vandals, Neanderthals...

On the current prescriptivist/descriptivist battlefront, nothing has occasioned more bloodshed than the humble pronoun, in particular the singular they... in fact there are two usages, quite different from each other. The first is... an identifier for a person whose gender does not fall into the he/him or she/her binary... The second usage of they is as a generic pronoun for an individual whose gender isn’t specified or relevant, as in “Every reader of this essay undoubtedly thinks they are a grammar expert.”

The experience of being misgendered is not some newfangled ultra-thin-skinned, special-snowflake conceit; it’s painful. Students have told me that being called by the wrong pronoun inspires responses that can range from “niggling unease” to “discomfort” to “incredible wrongness” to “rage” to the sensation of being “split in two.” The infraction is usually but not always deemed less serious when it’s accidental...

As for the second kind of singular they—well, that’s a more difficult matter... there are twenty-one terms for gender-neutral pronouns, including “duo-personal,” “epicene,” “hermaphroditic,” and “masculor feminine.” He prefers “the missing word,” and concludes that in English, “It turns out that the missing word isn’t missing at all. It’s singular they.”

College students are bellwethers—or, if you’re a prescriptivist, canaries in the coal mine. Once a new usage becomes widespread on campus, in a few years it’s widespread everywhere. No new usage has been advancing with greater speed than the singular they. Ten years ago, I might have heard examples in the classroom but rarely in the statements of interest my department requires in applications for its creative-writing courses. These tend to be stiffly correct, because students don’t know whether the instructors are prescriptivists or descriptivists but fear the worst since, after all, we’re English teachers. Here are some sentences from the applications I received last fall:
If I’m asking a person to read something, it’s because I want to hear what they have to say.

It’s rare to get to ask an author questions about what they’ve written.

I don’t want to be that student who can’t stop talking about how their summer abroad changed them.

It’s an intimate experience to look someone in the eye and tell them how you’re struggling.
These applicants were neither more careless nor less deferential than their predecessors. They had undoubtedly proofread their applications with meticulous attention... The students’ sentences, of course, all contained the second kind of singular they, the all-purpose generic pronoun. And they all made me wince...

I said, “But you’ll never say ‘they is.’ You’ll always say ‘they are.’ So won’t ‘they’ always sound plural?”  And then two words floated into my mind: “You are.”

I’d spent my whole life saying “you are,” whether I was talking to one person or fifty. When I was talking to one person, the plural verb didn’t sound wrong. It just was.

Had you once been exclusively plural? And had it evolved to be singular as well, though retaining its original plural verb? Might you, in fact, be a lot like they?  The answers turned out to be yes, yes, and yes. [explained in detail - re the history of "thee"and "thou" and the Quakers - in the source article]...

 "You are” made me feel entirely different about the singular they as a generic gender-neutral pronoun. I could see that they was undergoing exactly the same evolution as you had, from exclusively plural to both singular and plural—an evolution that in both instances was driven by social change.

But I’ve been considerably swayed by the many reasonable arguments in favor of the singular they. Here are a few.
It’s been used by writers from Chaucer (“And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame, / They wol come up and offre in Goddes name”) to Shakespeare (“God send everyone their heart’s desire!”) to Fielding (“Every body fell a laughing, as how could they help it”) to Shaw (“It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses”). A friend of mine mentioned that Jane Austen used it routinely. She did? She did. I found an Austen website that lists thirty-six instances in Mansfield Park alone.

It was used in the King James Bible (Philippians 2:3: “Let nothing bee done through strife, or vaine glory, but in lowlinesse of minde let each esteeme other better then themselues”).

Many languages—including Turkish, Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Basque, Armenian, Bengali, and Tagalog—have no gendered pronouns.
English needs a gender-neutral singular pronoun...

It’s generational. The young are more likely to use they than the old... It’s political, but in a good way. My students endorse the singular they not because they’re snowflakes but because they’re activists. The nonbinary they appeals to them because even if they’re not nonbinary themselves, they wish to support those who are...

I already say plenty of things that aren’t grammatical just because everybody does and I’m used to them. I wouldn’t say “I aren’t,” but I say “Aren’t I?” I wouldn’t say “Me is it,” but I say “It’s me” even though—as per Easy English Exercises, Lesson 60, “Case Forms of Pronouns”—“me” should be “I” because it’s a predicate nominative, not a direct object.

Sometimes they just sounds better. If, instead of “If you love someone, set them free,” Sting had sung, “If you love someone, set him or her free” or (following the suggestion in my grammar handout to make the whole sentence plural) “If you love people, set them free,” fans worldwide would have torn up their concert tickets...

The most powerful foes of the singular they aren’t prescriptive grammarians, who, like me, have a hard time with the generic gender-neutral pronoun, but leaders of the Christian right, who have a hard time with its use by nonbinary people because they believe that God made human beings either male or female. For them, it’s not a grammatical issue; it’s a religious issue...

So I’m in favor of changes that take gender off the table, or at least make it less central. I welcomed my university’s adoption of “first-year” instead of “freshman.” I used to think the point of the change was to make the term less male; I now think it’s to make it less anything. Similarly, I approve of “chair” instead of “chairman” (even the Fed made the switch last year), “ancestors” instead of “forefathers,” “workforce” instead of “manpower,” “actor” and “host” and “server” for everybody. I’m partway there with they.
Apologies to Harper's for the length of the borrowed material, but I think this is an important essay - and not just for English majors.

A tip of the blogging hat to reader Pearse O'Leary for providing the link for "A Brief History of singular 'they'" at the Oxford English Dictionary.
The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375, where it appears in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf. Except for the old-style language of that poem, its use of singular they to refer to an unnamed person seems very modern. Here’s the Middle English version: ‘Hastely hiȝed eche  . . . þei neyȝþed so neiȝh . . . þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.’ In modern English, that’s: ‘Each man hurried . . . till they drew near . . . where William and his darling were lying together.’..

Singular you has become normal and unremarkable. Also unremarkable are the royal we and, in countries without a monarchy, the editorial we: first-person plurals used regularly as singulars and nobody calling anyone an idiot and a fool. And singular they is well on its way to being normal and unremarkable as well. Toward the end of the twentieth century, language authorities began to approve the form. The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) not only accepts singular they, they also use the form in their definitions. And the New Oxford American Dictionary (Third Edition, 2010), calls singular they ‘generally accepted’ with indefinites, and ‘now common but less widely accepted’ with definite nouns, especially in formal contexts...

Former Chief Editor of the OED Robert Burchfield, in The New Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1996), dismisses objections to singular they as unsupported by the historical record. Burchfield observes that the construction is ‘passing unnoticed’ by speakers of standard English as well as by copy editors, and he concludes that this trend is ‘irreversible’. People who want to be inclusive, or respectful of other people’s preferences, use singular they. And people who don’t want to be inclusive, or who don’t respect other people’s pronoun choices, use singular they as well. Even people who object to singular they as a grammatical error use it themselves when they’re not looking, a sure sign that anyone who objects to singular they is, if not a fool or an idiot, at least hopelessly out of date.
More at the link.


  1. I do think "ancestor" and "forebear" have switched meanings a bit so that the former is associated more with family or general biological relation, while the latter means anyone who previously existed, especially in relation to an ongoing phenomenon (probably from the association with the verb "bear"). Therefore, "forebears" may be more apt replacement for "forefathers". And it retains similar form.

  2. I will welcome the day that we dispose of gender-specific pronouns. As a friend or relative to several trans folks, I sometimes catch myself using the wrong pronoun. It's embarrassing to me and hurtful to them. No need to have gender-specific pronouns. Let's ditch them!

  3. If what I say or write creates no ambiguity, it ain’t a problem.

  4. I still have trouble saying 'data are'. It gets stuck in my throat and won't come out. Data IS! Just like information IS.

  5. I wholeheartedly endorse the singular they. It's just more expedient and clear than "his or her" especially when gender isn't relevant. But I had never given thought to "you are"!
    So I have to agree 100% with the title....
    - A former McGraw-Hill Science editor

  6. A lot of problems can be blamed on old grammarians.


  7. [✓] thank you for bringing this up. I've learned a lot about pronouns from my students and my radical offspring. Singular they is the easiest solution to a lot of invisible unconsidered certainties in my head. One reason it matters to those who insist on thinking / using he and she, apart from inertia, is to pay more attention to what he says and discount her contributions . . . as usual. They damps this tendency. The battle is lost for E; Ey; Hou; Hu; Peh; Per; Thon; Ve; Xe; Yo; Ze; Ze; Zie; Sie; Zhe . . .
    Those who are super invested in M/F for all might like to do a few shifts in a maternity hospital where 1.7/1000 live births pose a quandary 'down there'.
    Fadiman is The Best. I'll defo adopt her {You are | They is} comparator.

  8. For myself, when I didn't know if the person in question was man, woman or other, I used they/them. Essentially the person in question, until identified, is all three, hence a plural.
    They are like Schroedinger's person, not man, woman or other until observed.

  9. If only William Safire was around to comment on this subject. That would be good reading.

    1. Was William Safire the one who fulminated against the use of "chair" instead of "chairman" or "chairwoman" and "flight attendant" instead of "steward" or "stewardess" because he "needed" to know what sex the person he would deal with was? Or was that someone else?

  10. Language evolves constantly, as society evolves and we need new words to keep up. And if we don't keep up with those changes, both social and linguistic, we find ourselves falling behind. I'm 40 years old. I have a couple of good friends who are non-binary. I respect their pronoun choices, but sometimes I make mistakes because I'm not perfect, and the idea is a bit hard to wrap my head around. But that's on me, and when I do make a mistake, I apologize for it and correct myself. After all, isn't that all anyone can ask of another?

  11. when do plurals actually matter? This is a real question, not rhetorical. I can see a use for distinguishing between singular I and We. Saying “We love this blog” is a bit presumptuous of my partner. But does it matter at all for 3rd person? If it really matters to have just one individual, then tacking on “one of” makes it very clear, e.g. “one of them will need to crawl through the air duct to rescue the cat.”. But if we are describing people crossing the street, does it matter if it is 1 or more versus 2 or more? And it matters so much, why don’t when have special pronouns for 3 or more, etc?

  12. The difficulty is distinguishing between
    (A) innovation
    (B) giving up in the face of the spread of solecisms transmitted by people who do not know the difference.

    Objectively, (B) is worth preventing. Subjectively, (B) is always worth preventing.

    By definition, a prescriptivist playing catch-up is not being prescriptive. The label is therefore being applied dishonestly. That is also worth preventing.

    There is a perfectly good gender-neutral singular pronoun: "it". The convention that "it" should only be applied to inanimate entities is a piece of confusion.

    1. The difficulty is distinguishing between
      (A) lack of reading comprehension
      (B) pretending not to understand the article one is commenting on.

      Objectively, (B) is worth preventing. Subjectively, (B) is always worth preventing.

  13. Here in Texas we have you (singular) and y'all (plural). As an old woman, I kinda like the -ess endings and think we ought to embrace them, as in "My ancestress was a brave woman who crossed the plains and kept house in a dugout."

    1. I thought "y'all" was singular, and "all y'all" was the plural form. But it's been over 40 years since I lived in Texas.

    2. Here in the Shallow South, there is also "y'all'n" and possibly "y'all'ns". I doubt that there can be a complete list of informal second-person plurals. "Yous" (voiced), "youse" (unvoiced), "youses", "you-uns", "yinz" (possibly a corruption of the preceding, but geographically distinct; cf. "we-uns" -- also "us'ns" -- but not "winz"), "y'all", "all y'all", "y'all'n", the list goes on and on.

  14. A note to "The redoubtable Anne Fadiman"
    As a long-time teacher of English with countless students who may refer to me in a kindly way, I prefer to be remembered as "my former English teacher" instead of by your wording: "My old English teacher". Old may be the accurate word but former is far more friendly.
    John Morrison, Victoria BC Canada

    1. The grammatical awkwardness was mine, not Anne Fadiman's. I have amended the text accordingly. Thanks for the heads-up.

  15. As non-native English speaker I do not have any meaningful contributions to the topic. All I was able to think of was this Gary Larson Far Side Cartoon:
    "YOU, Bernie Horowitz?...So you're the 'they'in 'that's what they say'?"


  16. I am curious how the gendered pronoun problem is being handled in gendered languages like French, Spanish, Russian, and Hindi. Gender is so deeply embedded that it is difficult to imagine such a simple solution as replacing him/her with they.

  17. "You are" is singular nowadays. The "you" is the formal version of singular "thee" and "thou", similar to the German "Sie" is formal to the informal "Du". In German and English, the formal version stems from the plural form, but in English, the informal version has been dropped from modern language. It seems to me that the German informal "Du" is trending to replace the formal version.


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