Singular They | How Acceptable Is It?

Have you been hearing the use of “they” in the singular lately?

If you watch Bull, you have, even if you didn’t notice it. When on the stand, a priest—who was trying to keep a confessor’s identity secret—managed to use it flawlessly, as did the attorney questioning him.

The only reason my mother noticed was because I verbally poked her by hissing, “Singular they!” while we watched it over a yummy pierogi dinner.

My mother and I have had a lot of conversations over this because she is a very enlightened 75-year-old who is trying to navigate the world of pronouns in her gender-diverse choir. I am freaking proud of her for this!

But the singular they, as shown in the episode of Bull, is not only for the non-gender-binary community. Many of us use it unconsciously on a regular, if not daily, basis when we are not speaking about a specific person.

In the spirit of the holidays, I am going to give you (and my mom—Hi, Mom!) a gift of resources. Instead of repeating the same information you can get all over the place, I am going to use this blog to simply curate some sources for you to send or quote to people when the need arises.

History

Let’s start with a little history. Do you prefer brief or not-so brief?

Lexicon Valley is a great podcast, and they have done a few episodes on this topic. However, the most recent one was followed shortly by a print article from the host, John McWhorter, in the Atlantic. So those who like to listen and those who prefer to read can take their pick!

Thanks to the above, I also found this tweet that has a great graphic by DRS with some talking points.

Due to the title of McWhorter’s article, I do want to point out that, just like when we use “you” in the singular, “they” also takes the plural form of verbs. (Need a resource? While not a linguist, this PhD-holding educator lives in this world and nicely answers the question!)

Style Guide Acceptance

Many dictionaries and style guides have made statements over the last few years about this topic. Here are my defaults: Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam-Webster.

Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl) has a number of pieces on the singular they, but this one nicely sums up the major points of some stances on it.

And because English is hard and we all need a little funny.

TL;DR

In case you just don’t want to read other sources, here is my TL;DR:

Singular they has been in use since the 14th century. Since they has only been a word since the 13th century, this is nearly its entire existence!

The use of singular they allows for the retirement of complicated and/or sexist constructs, and you probably already use it regularly without thinking about it.

However, the style guides say to use it sparingly in writing, especially formal writing. (Unless the subject of your writing has specifically requested it!) But really, they have opened the door to its use, so I think you will see it more and more until it is as accepted as the singular you.

Singular they

Thanks to my reader Susan Land, who has kept this higher in my mind than usual since her comment a few blogs back when I used the singular they without thinking about it!

If you have a question, let me know in the comments below.

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