Home » Writing Advice » Gendered Pronouns & Singular “They”

Gendered Pronouns & Singular “They”

20 January 2018

From OWL – Purdue Online Writing Lab:

Linguistically, pronouns are words used to refer to people by replacing proper nouns, like names. A pronoun can refer to either a person talking or a person who is being talked about. Common pronouns include they/them/theirsshe/her/hers, and he/him/his.

. . . .

The English language does not have a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun, but in recent years they has gained considerable traction in this role. They has been officially recognized as correct by several key bodies such as the Associated Press and the Chicago Manual of Style.

. . . .

Historically, the OWL has had resources on gender inclusive language that mainly focus on incorporating women into general language—for instance, using “he or she” or just “she as the pronoun for a general subject, rather than always defaulting to “he. Now, the conversation on gender inclusive language has expanded further to include people whose genders are neither male nor female (e.g., gender-nonconforming, gender-neutral, genderfluid, genderqueer, or nonbinary individuals, though this list is not exhaustive). In basic terms, this means that he and she are not sufficient to describe the genders of all people, because not all people are either male or female. As such, the phrase “he or she” does not cover the full range of persons.

The alternative pronoun most commonly used is they, often referred to as singular they. Here’s an example:

Someone left his or her backpack behind. → Someone left their backpack behind.

Since we don’t know the gender of the person who left their backpack behind, we use they to include all genders as possibilities for that mystery person. In addition to being respectful of people of all genders, this makes the sentence shorter and easier to say. In fact, almost all of us use this language on a regular basis without even thinking about it.

Link to the rest at OWL – Purdue Online Writing Lab

As a reminder, PG doesn’t always agree with everything he posts on TPV. He has, however, been a regular user of the singular they and their for a long time, dating back to a simpler age when there were just two genders.

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19 Comments to “Gendered Pronouns & Singular “They””

  1. I find it useful when the gender is unknown – or when not wanting the character to hint at the possible gender.

  2. I’ve used singular “they” all my life. It was just easier and made more sense to do so, especially since I dislike the attempted “inclusion” of the “he or she” form, and the patriarchal “he” alone. On occasion, when appropriate, I will invoke the “one” form, but that is rare.

  3. I resisted the singular they for a long time. But somewhere in the last ten years it began to creep into my speech, because it is just so darned convenient.

    Now I use it all the time in conversation. I even use it in emails and correspondence. But I still keep it out of my stories. Just. Can’t. Quite. Go. There.

    Yet. 😉

  4. I’ve used the singular they in speech forever. I kept it out of formal writing, however, until my current job. My current job is very clear: Unless I’m writing about a specific example where the sex of the individual is known, we use either the singular or plural they. It made me cringe initially, but now I quite like it.

  5. The last example in the excerpt irks me. Why not say instead, “Someone left a backpack behind?” Same idea, no need to worry about his/her/its/their, and at least in my day-to-day world, all backpacks have owners. None come along on field-trips solely of their own volition.

    • I’m with T. I am one of those loons who believe Chicago Manual of Style implicitly and without question. (Disclaimer: I once was slipped a ten for moving some boxes CMOS in a U of C Press storeroom.) However, I still hear a clunk when I read a singular they.

      The clunk is easy to avoid most of the time. T’s example is great.

      Much of the time, it’s easy to change the referent of a singular they to a plural. Singular they example: “I deplore a reader. They is usually a snob.” Easy change: “I deplore readers. They are usually snobs.”

    • Richard Hershberger

      The example was poorly chosen in that it has, as you point out, a readily available alternative that means nearly the same thing and avoids the singular ‘they.’ This, however, misses the point. There are endless possible examples that do not lend themselves so readily to such alternatives. The question for a writer is how to deal with these situations, which are legion. The possibilities include pretending that he/his/him includes women, using a clunky construction such as ‘his or her,’ going back and rewriting the sentence entirely to find some way to say approximately the same thing without using a singular pronoun, or use a singular ‘they’ like everyone else. The traditional answer was the first: pretend that he/his/him is non-gendered, even though we all know it really is. This is no longer tenable. The objection that ‘they’ is necessarily plural is a transitional phenomenon. People made the same complaint about singular ‘you.’ This critique is now long past being quaint into being, for those untrained in historical linguistics, inscrutable. Give singular ‘they’ a little time and it will run the same course.

  6. Writers can reflect a living language, or wait for someone to say it’s OK. Both work.

    • It is not the language that is living, but the people who use it. A writer’s vote on usage counts as much as anyone else’s: more, if the writer is widely read.

      In any social endeavour, you can go along with the crowd, which tends towards mob rule; or you can go along with authority, which tends towards tyranny. There is also a third alternative: that you judge of the matter according to your own best lights, and act accordingly.

  7. I never use singular they, because it’s not singular. It may come into generalized, formal use eventually, but I won’t be around then, so I don’t care. I feel no need to give obeisance to it.

    I use “he” in the standard way, either as a male or a generic pronoun, as the situation requires. I never use “she” as a generic because it’s not a generic, and I don’t pander. (When I speak in public, I never start by saying, “Gentlemen and ladies.”)

    If someone falls into a Miss Pittypat fit about my keeping to traditional English standards, tough. (Oh, and I don’t buy into the silly patriarchy complaint either.)

    As for genders, I restrict their use to grammar, as should others. When referring to people, the proper term is sex, and there are only two of them, not an ever-growing multiplicity. I suppose this means I would not be welcome on many college campuses, but, again, I don’t care.

  8. An interesting take on the thorny pronoun problem every writer has to solve.

    Just a note that “a simpler age when there were just two genders” is a convenient fiction—there have always been more than 2 genders.

  9. For years I used “s/he”, but that’s even clunkier than a singular “they”. English is a living language. The usage is changing.

    (Obviously I prefer British punctuation in quotes. It makes more sense in cases like the above.)

  10. Singular 3rd person singular usage for a plural form (they for him/her) is no different from 2nd person singular usage for a plural form (you for thee/thou).

    The latter took place a couple of centuries ago, and the former has been taking place during our lifetimes.

    This is an organic change, unlike the artificial gender pronouns that have been proposed.

    It’s not often that you get to see the living language (not the written one) changing during one lifetime.

    It now “sounds” perfectly normal to say “if anyone comes early, give them a drink.” This change has already happened.

  11. The thing about the singular they is that it has always been an acceptable part of English. The only reason it mostly went away is that prescriptivists tried to wipe it out.


    • Richard Hershberger

      Worth noting in particular that the King James Bible has numerous instances of violating the standard rule, using they/their/them where the standard rule demands he/his/him.

      • The King James Bible is doing a literal translation of the Hebrew words, not trying to make a normal English phrase.

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