Sunday, December 9, 2012

Can We Use THEY As A Singular Pronoun In English?

The English language is a monster.  Many believe it contains more words than any other language in the world, although this argument is unlikely to ever be proven.  Yet how can such a complex language like English lack basic coherence?  How can English have close to a million words and not one of those words address gender-neutral singular pronoun.  One of my biggest gripes with English is the universal acceptance of a gender neutral singular pronoun.

I, along with many other people, frequently use the pronoun they as singular.  Let me give you an example.  If someone has an idea for a gender-neutral singular pronoun, they should speak up.  In this example, the subject someone and the verb to have show singular agreement.  In the main clause, the subject someone is referenced again, but this time using the "plural" pronoun they.  Whether or not this is okay has been an ongoing debate. 

An instructor from the School of Journalism might say that the coordinate he or she is grammatically correct when referencing gender-neutral pronouns.  If someone has an idea for a gender-neutral singular pronoun, he or she should speak up.  Or, some deem it acceptable for the author of an article or body of work to use their own gender to represent a gender-neutral singular pronoun.  If someone has an idea for a gender-neutral singular pronoun, he should speak up.  But of course this is not considered politically correct and some my find it offensive.  So what's the solution?

Even though the singular they is commonly used in English, many people still consider it to be grammatically incorrect.  There are actually a lot of people out there care about debunking the use of they as singular pronoun.  Google lately came under fire when the company altered the Google+ social network.  In Google+ people are allowed to hide their gender, which prompts the use of they and their when updates are listed.  Google's product manager even had to address the grammar issue in a video outlining the new privacy feature.  Dennis Baron, a well-known grammarian and professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Chicago, has done extensive research into the lack of a gender neutral pronoun.  He has cited numerous examples throughout history of attempts to coin a pronoun to replace the cumbersome coordinate he or she.  Some suggested alternatives include:  thon, his-her, le, ne, and ip.  All attempts have failed, probably because these words sound foreign.  Perhaps someday linguists, grammarians, and the general public will agree on a gender-neutral singular pronoun.  But until that day, I'm just going to stick with they.  It just sounds right!  Besides, the singular they already has its own Wikipedia page. :)  Singular they - Wikipedia Page.

Other arguments for the singular pronoun THEY


  1. Yes, and I'd add to that themself as a gender-neutral reflexive pronoun. It's frowned up by some (and flagged by my spell check) but it was actually popular in the 14th century. Anyway, I'm happy with they/their/themself and that's the way it's going to stay!

    Gender-Neutral pronouns: