Why I Use the Singular “They”

Would you say that the sentence below is right – or wrong?

If anyone forgot their ticket, see me in the Events Office on the second floor.

Many people (I used to be one of them) would say that their is wrong. Anyone is singular, so it should be followed with another singular pronoun: his or her. Many people feel that using their instead of his or her is one more sign that our language is deteriorating. Are they right?

The surprising truth is that using “their” as a singular pronoun dates back to the 14th century, when English lost its gender-neutral singular pronoun. It was standard English and used by many serious writers, including Caxton, Shakespeare, Austen, Thackeray, Shaw, and many others.

But in the late 18th century, an American attorney named Lindley Murray decided that English should be more mathematical.

He wrote a book complaining about that usage, and – unfortunately – it became an international bestseller. Schools began teaching students to say “he” instead of “they.” When feminism came along in the mid 20-century, it got worse: now we had to use the clumsy he or she phrase.

Anyone bothered by the math should think about this: Are is another plural word that we use for one person when we say “you are.” You never say “You is,” do you? “You are my favorite aunt” is perfectly grammatical English, even though you’re talking to just one person.

Back in the time of Shakespeare, you were supposed to say “thou art” when you spoke to a single person. Nevertheless, soon almost everyone switched to the plural “you are.” Today nobody bats an eye about it.

If we can use “you are” for one person, we can use “they” for one person too.

It’s likely that even the “his or her” sticklers use the “singular they” more often than they realize.

Mary Norris (a wonderful writer and an authority on English usage) came out against the “singular they” in her book Between You and Me. (Apparently nobody told her about Lindley Murray!) But she uses a “singular they” herself in the book: “Nobody wanted to think they were not essential.”

Common sense is beginning to prevail, and many people (I’m one of them) have happily gone back to the original practice of using “they.” I have made a vow that I am never going to use “his or her” again. If anyone is upset about it, that’s their problem, not mine.

rule against using the singular they


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