A Singular Problem

Global Gender Issues

An abandoned book

The book lay forlorn atop a small table, abandoned beside a potted plant and a faint ring of coffee. The title, “Global Gender Issues in the New Millennium,” was splashed across the cover in bold yellow letters and surrounded by a rainbow of faces from around the world. I glanced around quickly for the owner of this book, but no one was in sight. The clock on the opposite pillar reminded me that classes had begun only five minutes before.

Collecting the book from the table, I headed for the library front desk. As I handed it to the librarian, though, I paused, considering my words.

“Someone left his or her book on the table. He or she will probably be back for it.” Hardly acceptable; I couldn’t determine which, if either, of those genders was appropriate for the individual in question, and it was stilted besides.

“This book was left on the table. The person who left it will no doubt return.” An acceptable use of the passive voice to draw attention to the object of the sentence, but not an efficient way to communicate. It also seemed needlessly formal.

“Someone left their book, and they’ll probably be back for it.” Of course; this is a perfectly acceptable sentence in spoken English, and it is really only in retrospect that I hesitated. In most cases, I wouldn’t give it a second thought—and nor, I wager, would you.

Despite the shrill protestations of those who declaim on the decline of discourse, the use of the singular “they” and its derivations is by no means a new phenomenon. That vaunted authority, the Oxford English Dictionary, records usage of the singular “they” as early as 1375, and that in writing. It also notes that the third-person forms of “they” were likely borrowed as a result of “functional pressure” to “disambiguate” the third-person plural and singular pronouns. In other words, the very existence of the word “they” in English is probably because we needed third-person gender-neutral pronouns, singular and plural both.

OED: a1375   William of Palerne (1867) l. 2179 Hastely hiȝed eche wiȝt..til þei neyȝþed so neiȝh..þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.

Why then do some grammarians rail against this useful and distinguished form of the word? For me to ascribe motivations would be rank speculation, but were I inclined to do so I might suggest of such a grammarian that they are a rule-bound pedant with no understanding of the descriptive nature of definition or grammar in a living language. I might also, if I were inclined to cast aspersions, say that the prescriptive rigidity of such a person does a disservice to the very heart and soul of language.

But rather than spending all my time rebuking such persons, I shall make my argument with the positive cases for the use of the singular “they” in writing—yes, even in formal written English. As I noted above, it is commonly used in informal speech, and likewise on internet message boards, in e-mail, and, I dare say, in blogs. (Some may disagree, naturally. If anyone has a particular disagreement, I would be happy to discuss it with them.)

The simplest benefit of the singular “they” is that it provides a gender-neutral pronoun for those cases where we are discussing a specific person, but their gender is unknown. Have you ever had someone cut you off on the highway and then groused about their driving later? Have you ever tried to speak about the owner of a lost item (as I had to above)? Have you ever tried to talk about a group by discussing its archetypical member? In all these cases, the singular “they” easily sidesteps questions of gender and lets you focus on the matter at hand.

A subtler, but perhaps more important, benefit of the singular “they” is its deft avoidance of exclusion. In cases where scientists, psychologists, teachers, reporters, or politicians must speak about members of a group, the use of the awkward “he or she” may actually introduce bias into the discussion. Defaulting to “he” as a supposedly neutral option is even less productive. In fact, some research shows that while “they” is gender neutral, the generic “he” and even the speciously balanced “he/she” still generate, for the reader, a mainly male image of the supposedly generic person in question. John Gastil, who performed this research, noted drily: “That this bias could reinforce itself in sexist thought and behavior seems eminently plausible.” Bias towards a gender dichotomy is encoded in much of formal academic language, but the singular “they” nullifies the issue with one simple step.

My final argument for the singular “they” is, in essence, an argument from linguistic conservatism. I firmly believe that language should be free to evolve as it needs to, but I also believe in making the most economical linguistic choice available. For that reason I do not think it worthwhile to employ stilted rephrasings of the sentences that come first to mind, nor to sidestep the issue with “he or she,” nor to sit quietly in the background of academia ruffling no feathers and waiting for others to lead the way.

Nor, even, do I think we should invent new words like “xe” or “ze” to cover our meaning, because it is not simply a matter of having an inclusive choice—language is a fundamentally democratic exercise, regardless of what some grammarians may tell you. While “xe” might catch on in limited circles, I think it is too dramatic to be adopted by the public at large—usages become widespread most often when they are intuitive, and “they” already fits that bill quite nicely.

The singular “they” is simple, elegant, intuitive, and has existed for centuries—and if anyone doesn’t believe that, they are welcome to look it up themselves.


2 comments on “A Singular Problem

  1. […] do advocate the use of the singular “they.” I think it is a natural, elegant, and gracious choice to give respect both to those who identify […]


  2. […] written about this in the past, and this is a delightful take on the subject. You don’t need an except to click through this […]


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