The MLA Is Accepting the Singular “They”

In March the prestigious Modern Language Association endorsed the singular they: https://style.mla.org/using-singular-they/?utm_source=mlaoutreach&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=sourcemar20non

Here’s an example. Instead of saying “his or her policy,” you can now say “their policy” in this sentence:

This year every driver will receive a discount on their insurance policy.  CORRECT

Here’s the MLA’s explanation for endorsing the singular they:

Because it lacks grammatical agreement, this use of singular they has been considered a less desirable option than revising to use the plural or rephrasing without pronouns. But it has emerged as a tool for making language more inclusive (see “Guidelines”), and the MLA encourages writers to accept its use to avoid making or enabling assumptions about gender.

Good for the MLA! But I’m not completely happy with that explanation, for two reasons.

First, it’s not true that the “singular they has been considered a less desirable option.” That’s too broad a generalization. Some academics have considered it “a less desirable option.”

If you’re a native English speaker, you’ve probably been using the singular they your entire life without even being aware of it. It’s been around since the 14th century, and it didn’t fall out of favor until the 18th century. It’s firmly embedded in our language.

What the MLA is really doing is endorsing something our language already had.

Second, the inclusive issue isn’t the biggest reason for endorsing the singular they. Our primary goal should be getting rid of the clumsy his-or-her construction. Begone!

But let’s not quibble over the reasons. The MLA’s new policy is grounds for celebrating. Let the party begin!

a party

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