The Singular “They”

In a moment I’m going to make two confessions. First, some background: I used to co-sponsor a club that elected new officers every year. In February, members received a nomination form in the mail, along with a set of instructions. A few years ago I revised the instructions.

But (confession #1) I deliberately ignored a grammatical rule in my revision. Can you find the mistake?

If you want to nominate someone for an office, make sure to get their consent. They need to print and sign their name in the spaces below.

What I did was to ignore (gasp!) the rule that pronouns have to be consistent. Someone is singular. They and their are plural. You can’t mix them.

Here’s the grammatical version of the sentence:

If you want to nominate someone for an office, make sure to get his or her consent. He or she needs to print and sign his or her name in the spaces below.

Gack. I refuse to write anything that clumsy.

I hope you agree with me that the pronouns-must-be-consistent rule is…stupid. But (here comes confession #2) I taught that nonsensical rule for years, and I included it in both the college textbooks I wrote. (I omitted it from my latest book.)

Perhaps you’re surprised by all this. After all, English teachers are supposed to stick to the rules of English…aren’t they?

Yes, of course. But which rules?

If you’ve been taught (as I was) that Moses came down from Mount Sinai with a complete set of grammar rules, you might be surprised to learn that the his or her rule is relatively new. It was the brainchild of an 18th-century lawyer who had no English language credentials.

Lindley Murray, the bestselling author of English Grammar, soon became the supreme authority on language for millions of people. Yep – he made up his own rule!

Before Murray came along, the singular “they” was standard English. It has been traced all the way back to the 14th century. Many respected writers – such as Shakespeare, Caxton, and Austen – used the singular they. Nobody wasted a second worrying about it.

That’s one reason why so many people continue to use it, even after the rule changed. How do you get rid of a usage with such a long history? (Incidentally, that’s why we continue to hear ain’t so often: it was a respectable word for hundreds of years before the rule changed. It ain’t going nowhere.) 

Back to Lindley Murray. His solution was to use his instead of they. The switch to his or her didn’t happen until the 1960s, when feminists started calling attention to sexism in language.

I’m a feminist myself, and I was glad to see the ubiquitous he go. But his or her always drove me crazy, and I used all kinds of dodges to avoid it. You can see why if you read this grammatically perfect but absurd sentence:

Every student must be diligent about his or her documentation when he or she is researching his or her senior writing project.

That’s just the way you and your friends talk, right?

The truth is that even self-proclaimed experts use the singular “they,” often without realizing it. (“If someone needs a ticket, they should come to the office.”)

Mary Norris, former copyeditor for the New Yorker magazine and a wonderful writer, insists that the singular they is “just wrong” in her bestselling book, Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. But she uses it herself in her book: “Nobody wanted to think they were not essential.”

And I was startled to find this sentence on p. xxiii of Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots, and Leaves (a cranky bestseller about English that I really disliked):

I tend to feel that if a person genuinely wants to know how to spell Connecticut, you see, they will make efforts to look it up.

Back to that nomination letter I talked about at the beginning of this post. A few years ago I said “Enough!” and switched to the singular they. It hasn’t always been easy for me. When I submitted that nomination letter, I was afraid someone was going to insist that I change “their name” to “his or her name.”

Happily, though, nobody made a peep, and I got away with it.

A victory for sensible English!


2 thoughts on “The Singular “They”

  1. ballroomdancer Post author

    Hi, Darrell – I just read the article at the link you posted. What a wonderful analysis! I joined the singular “they” fan club a year or two ago, and it’s such a relief not to struggle with “his or her” any more. And so far nobody has complained – or even noticed.

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