The Emergence of “They” as a Singular Pronoun

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“No one at the party wore their coats.”

“Invite a friend to share their thoughts on the subject.”

Do you see anything wrong with those sentences?

If you don’t, you probably have no qualms about the adoption of “they” as a gender-neutral, singular pronoun.

However, if you started vehemently proclaiming, “It should be his or her coat and his or her thoughts!” it might upset you to learn that “they” is the American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year.

Why are more people accepting “they” as a singular pronoun?

In December 2015, The Washington Post reported it would be changing its style guide to allow the use of “they” as a single, gender-neutral pronoun. Post copy editor Bill Walsh wrote that using “they” is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

He goes on to say, “He once filled that role, but a male default hasn’t been palatable for decades. Using she in a sort of linguistic affirmative action strikes me as patronizing.”

Another reason for the change is the ease it brings to writing. We often write the way we speak, which can be an issue when it comes to things like using “they” singularly.

The confusion stems from a class of pronouns called “indefinite pronouns” (nobody, everyone, each, someone, no one, everything) that sound like plurals but are actually singular pronouns. When speaking and often when writing, most people use them as plural pronouns, which is incorrect.

Is every style guide making this change?

As of right now, it seems that many places might be digging in their heels and refusing to change. But this is, at the very least, the beginning of a change that could make writing and editing less complicated (no more “he or she is eligible to…”) as well as less gender-specific.

The English language is constantly evolving, which is one of the main reasons it is so hard to master. Come back next week to learn more about semicolons and check out last week’s post on the differences between US, UK, and Canadian English.

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