The Singular “They” — When Pronouns Get Personal

Here’s a grammar grappler:

Each student should keep ____ eyes on ____ own paper.

  1. his
  2. her
  3. his or her
  4. his/her
  5. their

singular they gets messyThis would be an unfair test question because every answer is wrong, and every answer is right, depending on whom you ask.

At one time, academics largely agreed the proper answer was he. When some objected this was leaving out women, the defense offered was that “the masculine embraces the feminine,” that the audience should understand from the context when women are included in the generic he. But do audiences really see the implied woman as clearly as they see the specified man?

When presidential candidate Hillary Clinton vowed in 2008 to keep campaigning through the primaries until her party had “a nominee, whoever she may be,” the line got a laugh precisely because the audience understood that, while the sentence was ostensibly crafted to treat all candidates equally, her use of the female pronoun subtly brushed aside all non-female contenders. Likewise, when we use the masculine pronoun, at some level, we lead our audience to imagine a male and to ignore the possibility of a female — even if that exclusion is not what we intend. And when language conveys a meaning we don’t intend, that itself is problematic.

This issue was recently debated among the English teachers in our Teaching and Learning Forum (a forum available exclusively to NCTE members), where Kim Chism Jasper offered, “As far as I’m concerned, students can choose either ‘his’ or ‘her’.”

This was a popular sentiment. His and her are both grammatically correct, and the choice seems to remove the sexism. Certainly those who take this approach are not conspiring to relegate women to an afterthought. But if authors use she instead of he, aren’t they just trading ignoring women for ignoring men? If we use he half the time and she the other half, we can take pride that our linguistic injustices balance each other out, but our attempt to convey inclusiveness is still undermined in each instance.

So what about he or she? That’s more inclusive, but it’s clunky. Why use three words where one should suffice? He/she is slightly shorter, but it’s even more awkward as readers puzzle how to say that aloud. There is a reason he/she is more likely to be found in bureaucratic paperwork than in poetry.

And then we come to they. One syllable. Gender-neutral. But it’s plural. On the street, someone may use they to refer to one person of unidentified gender, but in the classroom, teachers have long implored us to view that as sloppy and uneducated speaking. Notice I didn’t say “all teachers.”

There have long been at least a few literary leaders who accepted the singular they. Even Jane Austen and William Shakespeare found the singular they useful at times. And just this month, the Washington Post announced they will allow their writers to use the singular they in some circumstances, though they continue to discourage it.

And some English teachers are now telling their students the singular they is acceptable or even preferred.

Does it violate the rules of grammar? Many still say it does. As Jasper argued, “shouldn’t we be teaching agreement of pronouns to their antecedents, or asking students to make the subject plural if that’s truly what they mean? Call me old-fashioned: ‘their’ = plural.”

To avoid this problem by using plural subjects (e.g., “All students should keep their eyes on their own papers.”) is a popular idea, but what happens when the author wants the emotional weight that audiences are more likely to give to an individual than to a faceless crowd? Notice how I said “the author” and not “authors”? I made that choice because the average reader will care more about an individual than about a group. As the political season heats up, note how many speeches symbolically represent a large group of people (especially a group the speechwriter wants us to care about) with a single individual (such as John McCain’s “Joe the plumber” or, more commonly, an unspecified mom or dad struggling against problems the politician vows to fix). It’s a common technique among skillful writers.

Insistence on using only plural subjects means giving up a valuable writing tool for the sake of grammar. But isn’t the point of grammar to make our writing more effective?

As the Forum debate over the singular they grew more heated, some argued that the rules of grammar are not written in stone.

Nicholas Jackson asked, “Are the prescriptivists amongst us forgetting that ‘you’ used to be considered a plural pronoun (compared to the singular ‘thou’) and STILL takes a plural verb form (‘you are,’ similar to ‘they are,’ as opposed to ‘he is’)? I’m getting so frustrated by those here who refuse to accept that language changes.”

“I’m proud to be using and teaching ‘they’ as a singular pronoun,” offered Barbara Lachman. “I have been hearing and correcting ‘they’ errors for my entire career, but it’s time to give it up. Language changes. Prescriptive English usage is a fairly new practice that only became widely shared in the 19th century. I don’t think it’s a revolutionary idea that the code of ‘proper English’ was a way for those with status and wealth to recognize each other and exclude those without access to that kind of education.”

She added, “I serve, work alongside, and socialize with people who do not clearly identify as male or female and prefer to be referred to as ‘they.’ I believe that using ‘they/their’ for those who personally prefer it, and for situations when gender is unknown, is a positive social change.”

Since the singular they still sounds wrong in many ears, some have proposed a new gender-neutral, singular pronoun: ze. The problem with ze, of course, is that no one wants to use it because no one else is using it. The early-adopter speaker will find zir audience distracted, and zir communication will be obstructed by the very tools of communication.

Peter Smagorinsky, however, suggested the problem can be overcome with persistence. “When I was in my teens, feminists got tired of the fact that men were always Mr., but women were identified by their marital state (Mrs. or Miss). They proposed a different term, Ms., which was attacked and called out as politically correct. But they kept asserting that it was not politically correct, just respectful, and before long, it became the norm.

“It may well be that ‘ze’ and ‘zir’ will replace current pronouns over time,” he added. “For those who reject ‘they’ as grammatically improper while also recognizing that ‘he’ and ‘she’ are inadequate, it may become a reasonable development.

“But don’t expect that to happen without resistance.”

For English teachers wondering what to teach their students, there is no easy answer. And maybe that’s a good thing.

Kenneth Lindblom offered, “Instead of determining whether or not YOU decide that ‘singular they’ is acceptable and then teaching based on your preference, bring students into these controversies and allow them to make their own decisions about when and where to break the conventions.”

This is in line with my own approach. When I taught high school English, the first week of my course included a balanced lecture on this very topic, and I set no firm rule for my class. Students learn the most, I find, not when they are handed simple answers, but when they are drawn into complex debates.

For the grammar grappler I offered at the start of this post, having the right answer may be less valuable than having a thoughtful answer.


Weigh in on this debate by commenting below. NCTE members can read the entire debate in our Teaching and Learning Forum, and everyone can check out these resources cited by debate participants:

They and the Gender-Neutral Pronoun Dilemma

Fostering Convention Awareness in Students: Eschewing a Rules-Based View of Language

12 thoughts on “The Singular “They” — When Pronouns Get Personal

  1. I do like the idea of a separate, new pronoun; however, I do not like “ze” or “zir” which, I guess, illustrates the problem with people adapting it. Also, I have been using “they” comfortably for years.

    I still put two spaces between two sentences when I type so I understand how hard change is…. Then again, the “extra” space isn’t excluding half the world’s population…

    Great piece, NCTE. Made me think!

  2. This is frustrating as I feel as if I already know what will become of common practice. Some teachers have already given up on the possessive apostrophe. Heck, the powers-that-be in a town in England removed the apostrophe from the street signs! King’s Way became Kings Way. Granted it’s a difficult concept for many students to understand . However, if we allow only easy things to make it into our curricula, isn’t that shortchanging our spoken world yet again?

  3. We just talked about this in my SAT prep class. A majority of my students got a practice test problem wrong when they answered “they” instead of “he or she.” While I agree, that “he or she” is more clumsy and “they” is part of our common speech, we do unfortunately have to prepare our students for high stakes tests and formal writing. We will discuss the opposing sides, but I will have to still require the old standard until a new standard takes over.

  4. While this blog post gives a nod to Jane Austen and Shakespeare, it gives the impression that the singular they has always been the rule and provides no mention of the epicene pronoun. The plural they did not really become a thing until the 18th century. And while we are at it, this post refers to the Washington Post as they: “the Washington Post announced they will allow their writers to use the singular they in some circumstances, though they continue to discourage it.” Do we not teach that collective nouns are singular?

    For those taking the ruling of the Washington Post as a personal affront, it might be a good idea to listen to this clip from the radio program A Way With Words:

  5. “When we use the masculine pronoun, at some level, we lead our audience to imagine a male and to ignore the possibility of a female — even if that exclusion is not what we intend.”

    Doesn’t that cut both ways, Bill? When you use a gender-neutral pronoun, you lead your audience at some level to exclude gendered people–even if that’s not what you intend.

    To say that gender-neutral implies the gender-specific runs you right into the objection with which you started the article: the specific he, the implied she.

    To say that gender-neutral language somehow has a capacity to avoid the problems of gendered language–which this essay implies–is merely rhetorical and seems like an ideological imposition.

    1. Great point! Catering to the gender-neutral people excludes the gendered. (And I’ll admit my bias as I’m completely confused by a person who doesn’t identify “itself” (?) with either gender. )

  6. It seems to me that if what is really desired is a singular pronoun that refers to people but remains gender neutral, all we have to do is chop off the “t” from “they,” “them,” their,” and “theirs,” leaving the 21st century English language with four new, non-offensive pronouns: “hey,” “hem,” “heir,” and “heirs.” Admittedly, this is not very natural or organic, but was Ms? (OK, maybe.)
    Not to mention that “hey,” “hem,” “heir,” and “heirs” might take offense since they already have reserved seats in dictionaries. Then again, since “they” can refer to plural non-humans, why not just let “it” refer to singular humans who desire to remain non-gender identified?
    Hey, maybe singular “they” is not looking so bad now as the rightful heir to the throne of politically correct human singularity, especially since common usage is probably well on its way to answering the question for everyone anyway.
    Think about it. If someone rings your doorbell but then leaves before you can find out who the bell ringer was, what do you say?
    “I wonder what he or she wanted?”

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