Merriam-Webster's website has been enlightening, if only because the subjects they've chosen so far have been sacred cows among grammar puritans and the stances the editors have taken have been towards linguistic freedom.]]>"/> Merriam-Webster's website has been enlightening, if only because the subjects they've chosen so far have been sacred cows among grammar puritans and the stances the editors have taken have been towards linguistic freedom.]]>"/>

Alex Blaze

Merriam-Webster OK's Singular-They

Filed By Alex Blaze | October 23, 2011 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: gender, grammar, language, she

The "Ask the Editor" Merriam-Webster-dictionar-002.jpegseries on Merriam-Webster's website has been enlightening, if only because the subjects they've chosen so far have been sacred cows among grammar puritans and the stances the editors have taken have been towards linguistic freedom.

For example, the video (sorry, there's no transcript and no embed) on ending sentences with prepositions was freeing for me; it's not that I never end sentences with prepositions, but just that I felt guilty, like I was getting away with something in the blog format that I wouldn't normally be allowed in the written word. Now I don't know what I was so nervous about. (Huzzah)

The latest video that I stumbled upon while trying to confirm a rumor I heard about the origin of a word. Apparently, it's perfectly acceptable to use "they" instead of "she or he" and "their" instead of "his or her." As in:

  • Everyone should drink from their bottles after they finish walking.
  • Someone who feels guilty knows what they've done.
  • A parent has to wake up early to send their kids to school.

I was taught that that was incorrect; "they" is plural, so the writer should use a singular pronoun like "he" (what can I say, it was Indiana). In fifth grade I refused to use "he" to refer to a person whose gender I didn't know, but soon learned that "he or she" is cumbersome after the first, I don't know, two or three times one uses it.

The Merriam-Webster's video cites an example of singular-they from as late as the 17th century and blames the current ban on singular-they on 18th century grammarians. The fact that the usage is at least understood nowadays and sounds more natural than some of the alternatives shows that our language hasn't evolved so much that singular-they is incomprehensible.

Since American English, unlike French or Spanish, isn't controlled from up high by a board of linguists who determine what's correct and what isn't, our rules come from usage. Nowadays inaccuracy in terms of gender (using "he" or "man" to refer to people of either gender) offends our senses more than inaccuracy in terms of number. And we read singular-they more often now as writers look for something inclusive that doesn't take so much time to write or read.

Ze and hir have been proposed as alternatives and a few people even use them regularly, but the issue there is that most Americans aren't familiar with those words. Yes, the more writers consciously choose to use them the more familiar readers will become with them, but why do that when there are three words - they, their, and them - that readers are already familiar with that get the job done?

(Perhaps ze and hir should be saved for situations where the person being discussed identifies as outside the gender binary? Such a conversation already implies that the interlocutors are familiar with someone who identifies as neither male nor female.)

I'm sure someone could search the archives here at Bilerico and find dozens of examples of me using singular-they, but now I'll be using it with pride - no less an authority than Merriam-Webster approves.


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My pet peeve is, "begging the question."

I love to see the language evolve, but the singular "they" bothers me because it can cause confusion as to whether you're referring to one person or more. It doesn't just leave open the question of gender, it now leaves open the question of number.

Also, I think I have an emotional aversion to it because it reminds me of the closet. I still hear this every once in a while, but it used to be standard for gay people to refer to their partners as "they" and "them" to avoid coming out in casual conversation where safety might be a concern.

I welcome the singular-they with great joy ... and I use it regularly. After an initial "him or her" or "her or him" to introduce and emphasize the intent of gender equality ... I then use singular-they with no apologies. (Even though I admit that Steven has some good points, above. Even so, if number or gender is truly in question, and matters in the meaning being conveyed, then reverting back to more traditional pronouns is always a writer's option.)

And if he or she doesn't like it, they should try suing me.

Yes, 'they' as an gender indefinite pronoun was used by Shakespeare and other dramatists of that era. I actually greatly prefer it to having umpteen non-gendered pronouns to deal with (ie Justin Vivian Bond's 'Mx'). Nor do I hear the equivalent of "you people" when I hear "they" but I think gender queer is absolutely here to stay, will become more mainstreamed and there needs to be strategies for dealing with an acknowledged complexity of the gender universe. I also greatly dislike it when trans people are referred to by their assigned birth genders when someone is discussing them pre-transition and an easy alternative for the lazy and uninformed is to use "they."

I don't really have a response to anyone but I'm just stopping in to let people know I'm reading comments and I appreciate your reactions. I watch all the Merriam Webster videos but this one related to gender so it was relevant to this site.

I think of dictionaries as documents of what people are doing with language as much as they are accounts of what people are allowed to do with language. I hear you saying that M-W "okayed" the use of the singular "they." But it might also be that they (the M-W editors themselves) aren't giving it the thumbs up, so much as saying, "well, if that's what the kids are doing these days..." :-)

As far as I am concerned, anyone who has a problem with use of "they" for a single person should be barred from using "you" for a single person, otherwise, they're just being inconsistent.

Rachel Bellum | October 24, 2011 1:50 AM

As a good Southerner I know that "you" is singular and "you all" is the plural.

Bless your little heart. Thanks for the reminder.

I think they is wrong if they is gonna promote that.

Back when I was in grad school, a colleague proposed a contracted form of she, he and it as the neuter singular pronoun in English. That is: s/h/it. I rather liked that solution.

I had a similar dislike of the "his or her" rule, which I thought was an everyday, dead-set rule, too, Alex. Thanks for the tip. Unfortunately, "his or her" is still the rule in AP Style, and I've had editors who've changed my "they"s and "their"s to gendered pronouns because of it.

No, the word 'they' cannot ever be singular. Use 'he' or 'he or she'.