When did “they” become a singular pronoun?

 

Was it in 2010, 2015 or 2017? No. “They” was considered a singular pronoun far earlier (at least as early as the 1300’s).  Even as the grammar rules changed on using Singular They, famous writers such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Henry James, and F. Scott Fitzgerald used “they” as a singular pronoun.

But many of us were taught that using “they” as a singular pronoun was wrong.  In conversation, we would say sentences like:

When someone drives through our neighborhood they need to slow down because there are a lot of children around. 

However, if you wrote that sentence in an essay, email, or even flyer (like one of my friends did) someone would come along and replace “they” with “he/she.”

Why was it different in speech than in writing?   Originally, the rule was that you could use “they” as I did in the first sentence.

Then grammarians came along and changed everything.

Why?   Well,  let’s dive into the history of why it changed and why Singular They is accepted again.

Singular They

First , what is Singular They? 

It is the use of “they” “their” and “them” as  3d person singular pronouns when a person’s gender is unknown.  Here’s an example:

A writer needs to create a compelling scene, so they capture their readers’ attention.

You don’t know the gender of the writer, so you use the word they to refer back to the writer.

In recent years, the definition has expanded.  “They” is also used  as a singular pronoun when a person does not identify as “he” or “she,”  and  identifies with a nonbinary gender.

Throughout history, it has always been accepted in speech and now it’s accepted in writing.

 

History of Singular They

The Surprising History of Singular They

The Origin 

The Oxford English Dictionary states that Singular They can be seen in writing as far back as 1375 in a poem called William the Werewolf.  It probably existed much earlier, but that is the earliest written text that’s been found.

The poem is in Middle English which differs from Modern English. You have to muddle through the text to see what words represent the Modern English words,  “they” and “their.”

The post, “The Brief History of Singular They” https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-singular-they/#   will give you a clear translation of William the Werewolf from Middle English to Modern English.

Even after the Middle English period,  “they” was accepted as a singular pronoun when the gender of the person referred to is unknown.

You can find several authors who used “they” as a singular pronoun.  When this grammar rule changed in the mid-1700s to declare “they” as no longer a singular pronoun writers still used it.

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice  Elizabeth says to Darcy, “ To be sure you knew of no actual good of me—but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love” (Austen 374).

 

The Universal Singular Pronoun “He”

In 1745 Anne Fisher wrote the book, A New Grammar in which she called “he” the universal singular pronoun.  “He” would represent both male and female singular pronouns. 

Grammarians caught onto this idea and Singular They was no more.  https://www.thoughtco.com/singular-they-grammar-1691963

This rule became standard practice for formal writing. For centuries writers only used male pronouns to represent all people.  You had sentences like this:

A writer needs to create a compelling opening scene, so he captures his readers’ attention.

 

The problem is how this was interpreted.  Not everyone considered “he” as a universal pronoun.  “He” read as the pronoun for man.  Specific roles of leadership like a professor, doctor, president, etc. used the pronoun “he.”

However, in writing “she” became the pronoun of choice in roles people believed to be traditionally female like a nurse.

People didn’t only use “he” as a universal pronoun.

Otherwise they would have continued using “he” with “nurse.”  They read different singular nouns as belonging to either a man or a woman.

The state of pronouns remained this way until the next big change in the 1970s.

 

The Use of “He/She” or “He or She”

The use of “he” in writing changed, and people began using he/she, him/her, himself/herself, etc. because women weren’t represented in language.

Here’ an example of how those singular pronouns look in writing.

A writer needs to create a compelling opening scene, so he/ she captures his/her readers’ attention.

Some people who disliked the slash between these pronouns used “he or she”, “him or her” etc.  Now, women were represented.

However, for many writers, this looked awkward in writing. You don’t want an essay, paper, article, or blog post filled with he/she dashes because it disturbs the writing flow.  Also, we don’t speak like this.

Do you say he/ she aloud? Unless you’re an English teacher at a family reunion where one of your relatives peppers you with grammar questions, I doubt you do.  Most people use Singular They in conversation.

In formal writing, many style guides suggested using a plural noun, so that you can use “they,” “their” and “them.”

Writers need to create a compelling opening scene, so they capture their readers’ attention.  

This approach looks and sounds better, doesn’t it?    But you can’t always change a noun from singular to plural.

In this case, you could use “one” “an individual” or “person.”  Another method some writers choose is to alternate between “he” and “she” when writing about people.

These solutions all address the awkwardness of “he/she,” but now the debate against “he/she” is that it does not include people who are of a nonbinary gender.

A nonbinary person is someone who doesn’t identify themselves as male or female (transgender, gender-fluid, etc.).

So, one of the ways to be more inclusive is to use “they” as a singular pronoun

 

The Comeback 

Around 2015, Singular They started making a comeback.  Not just because it flows well in sentences and is what we use in conversation, but because it is a gender-neutral pronoun.

Several colleges, educational organizations and writing guides recognize it.  It is accepted by:

In the post “Chicago Style for the Singular They” The Chicago Manual of Style explains their position “Chicago accepts this use of singular they in speech and informal writing… CMOS 17 does not prohibit the use of singular they as a substitute for the generic he in formal writing…” http://cmosshoptalk.com/2017/04/03/chicago-style-for-the-singular-they/?_ga=2.215891415.131299676.1563378018-946699587.1563378018

They prefer people try other methods of avoiding gender bias over Singular They (3rd person plural nouns with pronouns, etc.).  But ,they also add that anyone who does not identify with a gender-specific pronoun such as he or she can use Singular They to describe themselves.

In its October 3rd, 2018 post the Modern Language Association announced a similar position https://style.mla.org/singular-they/.   The Grammarly Blog https://www.grammarly.com/blog/use-the-singular-they/ also listed the APA Style Manual as another writing style guide that accepts Singular They.

 

Singular They is correct, right?

Yes, but…

Not everyone agrees with or likes the acceptance of Singular They.   In the article, “The War on Grammar” https://www.nationalreview.com/2016/10/gender-pronouns-job-titles/  the National Review calls Singular They  not only wrong but “destructive.”    Instead, they refer back to the grammar rule that the universal singular 3rd person pronoun is “he.”

As for me, I care about how people use language more than grammar rules from the mid-1750s.   I use Singular They in speech and now I’ll use it in writing.

 

Should you use it in your writing?

It’s up to you, but I say go for it.

People accept it in speech, informal writing, fiction, nonfiction etc.  More organizations and style guides are approving it. Language changes.

Grammar rules change–just look at the history of Singular They.  It went from acceptable, to people using “he” and from that to using “he/she” pronouns.

Now, it changes again.

Yes, if you use it in writing some readers will reject it. I’m sure this will happen with blog posts I write.

When it does, I will send them the link to this blog post.

Do you dare to use Singular They? Please comment with your answer.