Singular they, you, and a ‘senseless way of speaking’

It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses – G. B. Shaw

Every fool can do as they’re bid – Jonathan Swift

I like singular they, and I use it often. Most English speakers do, without even thinking about it. There may be times when alternatives are preferable, but singular they/their/them generally works very well, and the grammatical objections to it are specious. Other objections – based on aesthetics, feelings, or dubious authority – are weaker still.

I bring this up for two reasons. First, it’s topical among language bloggers – yes, yet again, but don’t let the subject’s familiarity put you off reading John McIntyre’s eloquent presentation of the facts, systematic defence, and exasperated addendum; or Lane Greene’s perceptive analysis at Johnson in which he says, simply and succinctly:

they is both singular and plural.

If you’re a singular-they non-believer, allow this seemingly paradoxical fact to sink in, and see how deeply it can go before the automatic shields are activated.

People who complain about singular they rarely extend their censure to singular you – but they could, if they wanted to be more consistent, and what peever doesn’t? You was once exclusively plural but crept into widespread singular use, as Greene shows in a subsequent post. (The related history of thee and thou is summarised here, while this essay details the development of their marked use.)

Where then are the howls of protest over singular you from devotees of logic and order? You would do well to find any: it’s just not the done thing to complain about singular you nowadays. No one would take you seriously. At least when you complain about singular they, you can drum up a few mumbles of support, albeit from a misdirected minority.

*

xkcd parody of Dinosaur Comics singular they cartoon

From xkcd’s parody of Dinosaur Comics

*

The second reason for bringing this all up is that I was prompted by Jessa Crispin’s essay on William James and Berlin to re-read, over the Christmas break, James’s Varieties of Religious Experience; and in it I found someone complaining bitterly about singular you. Thomas Elwood (1639–1714), an early Quaker, wrote in his posthumously published autobiography:

Again, the corrupt and unsound form of speaking in the plural number to a single person, you to one, instead of thou, contrary to the pure, plain, and single language of truth, thou to one, and you to more than one, which had always been used by God to men, and men to God, as well as one to another, from the oldest record of time till corrupt men, for corrupt ends, in later and corrupt times, to flatter, fawn, and work upon the corrupt nature in men, brought in that false and senseless way of speaking you to one, which has since corrupted the modern languages, and hath greatly debased the spirits and depraved the manners of men;—this evil custom I had been as forward in as others, and this I was now called out of, and required to cease from.

This is no ordinary rant, but still it presupposes – among a host of other metaphysical assumptions – that there is a “single language of truth”, absolutely harmonious forever, and conveniently in accord with the writer’s stylistic preference. (Funny how that happens.) Think of it as an overambitious theological version of the One Right Way fallacy.

Words can never be so impeccably created, chosen and arranged as to constitute a “single language of truth”; they only ever manage an approximation or a corruption of it. But we do our best, and patterns and principles emerge and congregate on common and generally sound conventions. Such as singular they.

On Twitter lately I said I find it strange when someone declares they don’t like singular they: it’s like hearing they don’t like socks, or carrots. Or singular you. The construction is fully grammatical; it’s been in use since the 14th century, abundant in literature and speech alike. It wasn’t objected to until 18th-century grammarians decided that indefinite pronouns simply had to be singular, and should be masculine.

They don’t, and they don’t.

Alternatives commonly proposed, of turning “generic” he into s/he, she/he or he or she, or alternating between he and she, perpetuate a false idea of gender as a binary set. They, by contrast, is implicitly inclusive. The binary options are also clunky, especially when repeated:

1. Someone left to his or her own devices must take action himself or herself.

2. Someone left to their own devices must take action themselves. [Or themself.]

Line 1 pretty much epitomises a “false and senseless way of speaking”, to use Elwood’s phrase. And pluralising the antecedent (someone → people in the line above) is not always desirable. Whatever you do, avoid he or she are.

Peeves about singular they are unsupported by historical and present usage and unsupportable by appeal to grammar or logic. You don’t have to use it, but resistance invites unnatural awkwardness and unnecessary exclusion. Why not get on board with it?

Update:

A few articles of interest: Geoffrey Pullum’s definitive argument for singular they; Mark Liberman on the future of singular they; more on Quakers and singular you.

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45 Responses to Singular they, you, and a ‘senseless way of speaking’

  1. John Cowan says:

    I think the real use-case for a novel singular epicene pronoun is when the referent is definite, in which case they does not work so well. “Can you talk to that person in the red shirt and find out what they want?” seems a little off to me, but if you don’t know if “that person” is properly referred to as “he” or “she”, you’re stuck.

    This, unlike singular they, does reflect an actual social change, as it almost always was trivial to determine a person’s gender from their clothes (indefinite use of they, no problem). Now it’s not so easy. We are in the position of the woman at the zoo, who asked the attendant, “Sir, is that a male hippopotamus or a female hippopotamus?” He replied, “Madam, I don’t see how that could possibly matter to anyone but another hippopotamus.” Unfortunately, hippos R us.

    • Mike says:

      ‘“Can you talk to that person in the red shirt and find out what they want?” seems a little off to me’

      Since the referent is definite, it’s logical to use ‘he’ or ‘she’.
      To use ‘they’ would imply that the gender of ‘that person’ is difficult to determine. To use ‘he or she’ would tell the listener or reader that the referee finds it impossible to decide the gender of the referent.
      In the sentence, “Can you talk to the applicant and ask them which poster they would like to take home?”, it is implied that the applicant is unseen.

  2. I’m with John: It’s odd to read, as I just did on a company website, a phrase like this one: “these liners create a cushioning layer between a woman’s skin and their bra band.” But perhaps it’s the logical result of the shift toward singular “they,” and we should just get used to it.

    • John Cowan says:

      That is in fact the case I find unproblematic, though her would have been clearer, as Stan says. No, it’s when we know who someone is that singular they is odd: Go ask James what they want isn’t something I’d say.

  3. stuartnz says:

    Thanks for the “singular you” example, Stan, a perfect illustration of the spirit behind the opposition to singular they. John, may I ask what seems off about “Can you talk to that person in the red shirt and find out what they want?”. I would not hesitate to use it in the situation you describe, and hear it in exactly that sort of situation often.

  4. Stan says:

    John: That’s an interesting example, not least because it doesn’t seem off to me at all – or to Stuart, evidently.

    Nancy: In your example I think their should be her because the pronoun refers to a woman; also, their could cause confusion because of the earlier plural noun “liners”. Where the gender is known, I find it generally makes sense to use either he or she (or their genitive or objective forms).

    Stuart: Thanks, as ever, for reading. Elwood’s complaint, though strange to modern ears, is first cousin to a more familiar peeve, and so makes for instructive comparison in various ways.

  5. joy says:

    I’ve always been one of those “they is plural” folks – but it never occurred to me that it really is useful as a gender-unknown singular pronoun!

    Thou is of course not used any more – but I am just wondering how verbs following it would be conjugated. I guess there’s “thou art” and “thou goest” – but what about regular verbs? “I write, thou ???, he writes, etc.” Is “thee” the direct object form of thou? Or something else?

    To me “thou” always sounds like an intimate form, like “tu” used to be in French before it became much more common. In Quebec “tu” is simply the singular, not familiar at all, like “tu” in Spanish is singular rather than familiar. Was “thou” actually ever a familiar or intimate form and “you” the singular formal?

    • Janet Swisher says:

      Joy: Read the links in the paragraph about ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. ‘Thee’ is the objective case, and ‘thou’ is the subjective case. But among Quakers who continued to use these pronouns in the “modern” era, ‘thou’ dropped out of use and was replaced by ‘thee’ in subjective positions. This is parallel to the shift that occurred in mainstream English, where we use ‘you’ for both cases, and no longer use ‘ye’ for the subjective case.

      • Janet Swisher says:

        Oh, and the conjugation parallels the third person. For example: “Make sure that thee writes to me every day.”

      • Alon says:

        Janet: I assume you are describing Quaker use. The traditional conjugation for thou employs -(e)st: knowest, sayest, makest, writest.

      • Janet Swisher says:

        Alon: Yes, I was describing the American Quaker usage, based on my older Quaker relatives.

    • John Cowan says:

      Oh yes, absolutely, probably under the influence of vous in the French of France. Shakespeare’s characters very carefully calibrated their use of thou versus singular you: you implied courtesy, but also emotional distance.

  6. cathyby says:

    I don’t think “they” in reference to a singular specific individual is new. It has an obvious application with a ringing phone – unlikely to be more than one person and “Answer that and find out what they want” sounds okay to me. Or indeed, when being told to answer the door, that had glass which preserved outlines but blurred details.

    • John Cowan says:

      Hmm, yes. When you have no hope of knowing the gender, definite singular they sounds all right to me; not so much when you could find out but just haven’t — that seems rude, somehow.

  7. substuff says:

    I received an article yesterday in which the writer had used ‘she’ for every generic singular (there were no generic plurals, apparently). It was really, really strange. It wasn’t an article on a topic specific to women, and neither was it written by a woman. I’m mystified as to why, considering that the writer must have known it wouldn’t fit with our (or any?) house style.

    I’d like to say that I changed them all to ‘they’, but seeing as I didn’t so much rewrite the piece as start it again from scratch, that wouldn’t quite be accurate.

    Insisting on ‘he’ is old-fashioned and stubborn. Insisting on ‘she’ is unnecessarily distracting, verging on purposefully distracting.

    • John Cowan says:

      And insisting on they will piss off the prescriptivists, and insisting on he or she will piss off the people who like simple language. In short: You. Can’t. Win.

  8. jrsdavies says:

    It was maybe my tweet of 4 Jan (‘Writer I’m copyediting uses “they” for “he or she”. Don’t like this, but it’s so extensive I’d better leave it. What would @StanCarey do?’) that started Stan’s latest musings. I can see the point, but the singular “they” can stll feel awkward. The writer I was dealing with was a philosopher, and philosophers usually choose their words carefully, but I was still uneasy about a passage such as this:
    “In contrast, a jogger who attempts a longer or steeper route than they have even done before, and at which they know that they might fail, is doing sport, albeit perhaps in the most minimal of its many forms.”
    It’s the reversion to the singular (“is doing sport”) after a couple of “they”s that jars, for me

    • John Cowan says:

      And yet it must be so. Consider a singular-you version of the sentence: “In contrast, a jogger such as you are nowadays is doing sport, albeit [etc.]” Every verb must agree in form with its own subject, and although jogger and you have the same referent, the former must take is and the latter must take are; there is no conflict.

  9. Shaun Downey says:

    The cartoon sums it up for me!

    • joy says:

      I’ve been converted to the singular “they” by this piece – but what about in formal writing? I never use it – always find a way to write around the issue. Or these days if gender is unknown (often when giving an example about a hypothetical person, not a real one) I always use female pronouns. I used to use s/he, which isn’t too bad in writing (I think), but not any more. In formal writing (reports for work), it just doesn’t seem acceptable to use the singular “they.”

  10. languagehat says:

    “Can you talk to that person in the red shirt and find out what they want?” seems a little off to me

    I join Stuart and Stan in not finding it off at all; I am not, needless to say, heaping scorn on your reaction, to which you have every right, but I’m pretty sure it’s basic old-fartism that will become extinct as singular they becomes entrenched. (I exhibit plenty of old-fartism myself; I just don’t have a problem with this particular semi-novelty.)

  11. Stan says:

    Joy: “They is plural” is the intuitive reaction, since it corresponds to what we’re normally taught, but once we look at how we use the word we see it can be either plural or singular – so yes, it is extremely useful. In many formal contexts it’s considered perfectly acceptable, but in some it’s avoided (though it wasn’t, historically), and there are usually ways to write around it, as you say. My point is that we shouldn’t feel obliged to. For more on thee/thou, see the links in paragraph 4.

    Janet: Welcome, and thanks for your helpful reply to Joy. Funnily enough, ye is part of my idiolect (in the west of Ireland) as an option for second person plural. I think it’s common throughout the country.

    Cathyby: That’s a good example of the usage’s utility, and it sounds fine to me too.

    Cathy R.: Interesting case. Maybe the writer is very aware of the historical imbalance and wanted to redress it somewhat. I’ve seen this done, in books and elsewhere, and I find it fine, but as you point out it might not be compatible with house style. I suspect a lot of writers don’t pay too much heed to house style, assuming editors will fix whatever needs fixing.

    John: Thanks for the example. I see how the they might jar for some readers, yourself included, but it doesn’t for me. I guess it’s a question of being more or less accustomed or predisposed to this form of singular they. He or she wouldn’t work well there; pluralising jogger would, if singular they had to be avoided, though there could be contextual reasons I’m unaware of that motivate the singular.

    Shaun: I’m all for it too, but I’d change “ridiculous” in the third panel to “impractical or improbable”.

    Hat: I’d be surprised if it did become extinct, since it seems there’ll always be people willing to uphold common peeves and do their best to transmit them down a generation. (Not John C., obviously, but people who share his position on the usage and are biased and militant about it.)

  12. In the trans community there has been a pretty persistent push for inventing new ungendered singular pronouns (xe, hir, etc); I’ve found this extremely tiresome. We already have one: “they”!

    Funny how progressives uncritically accept the “they is plural” idiocy. Question authority!

  13. marc leavitt says:

    Stan:
    Who excoriates singular “they,” must be descended from King Canute; I think they (he, she or it) do protest too much.

    • John Cowan says:

      Canute, I hasten to point out, did not believe he could make the tides come in or out; he was providing a moral object lesson to his flattering courtiers. We still think it necessary on occasion for our leaders to prove they are not more than human.

  14. Stan says:

    zeroanaphora: I appreciate your insights, since I’m not very familiar with the state of debate in trans communities. But I have noticed in popular discussion of singular they that there’s virtually no mention of the political shortcomings of s/he and co.: it’s all about how unpronounceable or stylistically awkward they are. Valid criticisms, but far from the whole story.
    (My earlier post on generic he has a brief discussion and links on novel epicene pronouns.)

    Marc: I think so too. The tide of singular they has been flowing more or less steadily for the greater part of the language’s history.

  15. Alan Gunn says:

    I’m fond of the singular “they,” and I use it. But it does differ from the singular “you” in one way: Singular “you” has replaced “thee” and “thou” in most people’s speech, while singular “they” doesn’t seem to be doing that to “he,” “she,” etc. It would still seem very odd to say “I saw George yesterday and they told me ….” (meaning “George told me”). Singular “they” seems to be limited to cases in which the sex of the person referred to is unknown. Not that this is an argument against using the singular “they.” It’s just that it serves a different purpose than that served by the singular “you” (which, as I understand it, was getting rid of the tv distinction in English).

  16. limr says:

    “Can you talk to that person in the red shirt and find out what they want?”

    It doesn’t set off red flags because it’s clearly an example of spoken language, and gender-neutral singular ‘they’ is more common and slips by without people even noticing it. But I assume it _should_ be ‘he’ or ‘she’ because according the example, both speaker and listener can see the person in the red shirt and should both be able to identify the gender and then use the appropriate gender-marked pronoun. Only if the person is in fact Androgynous Pat and they can’t figure out the appropriate pronoun should they have to resort to ‘they’.

    I’m not bothered by the use of ‘they’ as a pronoun, but the reason I harp on it in my writing classes is because most of my students haven’t the faintest clue of consistency, so they end up with tortured sentences like, “If you judge a person on their appearance, you could miss out on meeting a great person and then we won’t know that they could be wrong about your judgment.” That exact sentence was improvised but only because I’m not near my file cabinet where I have actual examples. I have to fight for these students to understand the very simple concept that, y’know, words mean stuff and if they use the wrong words, their ideas will only be clear in their own heads, but not in the heads of their readers.

    It’s an attempt to just keep them focused on the effect of their words, and also to help them remember the idea of context. There’s a time and a place, and they can go ahead and use ‘they’ in speaking or other writing, but they should understand that more formal, academic writing needs more attention to detail. It’s also a useful language lesson as well: if we don’t want to deal with awkward pronoun agreement, how can we restructure the sentence to avoid it? How else can this idea be put into words? Presto, more sentence variety and control of different sentence structures!

    And believe me, most of the time, there are so many bigger issues that I just leave the ‘they’ alone! ;)

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      @limr…. Your referencing the early ’90s recurring SNL sketch character, “Androgynous Pat”, played so masterfully by cast-member Julia Sweeny, for me definitely underscores the trickiness of nailing down appropriate gender identifying pronouns for androgynous-type individuals.

      (The singular “they”, as you indicated, does seem to be the appropriate default identifier re/ SNL’s Pat.)

      Seemingly, the raison d’être of those quirky, slightly unsettling Androgynous Pat skits was to play out, and satirize the generally awkward social interactions of this odd-ball, ambiguously-gendered individual with others, who were constantly perplexed by Pat’s mannerisms, body language, voice pitch, and uni-sex attire.

      The abiding question remained…”Was Pat a “he”, a “she”, or merely some confused third-sex wannabe?”

      As earlier pointed out by poster แอ็ะปปี้ (@zeroanaphora), I can appreciate where transgendered-identifying individuals would be open to coining some combined gender-defining male/ female specific pronoun, besides the grammatically clumsy, and for some perhaps slightly mocking, “she/he” appellation.

      Being, in a sense, betwixt-and-between genders clearly presents challenging identity issues, but I would think that within the greater transgender community, it’s not that big a deal.

      I would submit that it’s more of a puzzler for the majority ‘straight’ population, on the outside, looking in, so to speak.

      • wisewebwoman says:

        ‘The abiding question remained…”Was Pat a “he”, a “she”, or merely some confused third-sex wannabe?” ‘

        I’d say the confusion would lie in the eye of the beholder only,

        XO
        WWW

      • alexmccrae1546 says:

        @ http://www…Touché!… with your earlier spot-on “in the eye of the beholder” observation re/ SNL’s “Pat”.

        Admittedly, the TV-viewing audience was ALWAYS in on the joke, as it were, even though the not-ready-for-prime-time-players in those sketches feigned naiveté, befuddlement, suspicion, or just plain ignorance as to Androgynous Pat’s true gender.

        Yet ‘inquiring minds’ always seemed to want to know, basically sustaining the run-on, awkwardly funny gag.

  17. Gary says:

    Hi, Stan–I am fairly new to your blog and enjoy it tremendously! Didn’t Ben Yagoda cover this topic in the past year, wondering if it was finally time for us–teachers, editors, arbiters of house style–to accept as appropriate and formal usage the singular they? I think he found that the mainstream publications were still holding to plural-only.

  18. I guess I’ve always used it both ways… In common speech I’ll use they as singular, unknown gender, pronoun. However, in writing, especially technical or professional writing I’ve always used he or she/him or her etc.

  19. wisewebwoman says:

    I am totally comfortable with the use of singular ‘they’ and it brought to mind a conversation, years ago, with a friend who kept saying ‘they’ in reference to her lover.

    I turned to her and said: “You don’t have to ‘they’ me anymore. Just say ‘she’.”

    I’ve never forgotten the look of relief on her face.

    The closet was still pretty deep then.

    XO
    WWW

  20. I completely agree Stan. People get so preoccupied with what sounds right, or is believed to be historically correct, but rarely bother to actually consider the simple fact that it’s grammatically correct.

  21. Stan says:

    Alan: Yes, singular they and you differ in several ways, including the one you describe. They is especially useful when the gender is unknown or indefinite.

    Leonore: In John’s example sentence (“Can you talk to that person in the red shirt and find out what they want?”), the phrase that person suggests that the gender isn’t very obvious; if it were, I think that woman or that man would be far more likely. As for there being a time and a place for singular they, I’ll refer to Merriam-Webster‘s new unabridged dictionary:

    The use of they, their, them, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts. This gives you the option of using the plural pronouns where you think they sound best, and of using the singular pronouns (such as he, she, he or she, and their inflected forms) where you think they sound best.

    I agree with you about the importance of teaching consistency and making students aware of the option of restructuring.

    Alex: I would add that every sentient being has, at some point in their life, “challenging identity issues”, and that this is as it should be.

    Gary: Thanks very much, and welcome to the blog. I don’t remember Yagoda’s piece, but I’ll look around for it if I have time later. Arbiters of style have accepted singular they in appropriate contexts for centuries; not to do so is the unorthodox position, as far as I’m concerned.

    Samuel: Sometimes those alternatives work equally well or better in a given situation. But not because there’s anything inherently wrong with singular they.

    WWW: That’s a wonderful anecdote. Thank you!

    Simon: Right. And what “sounds right” can be very subjective, and can change over time or when we decide to accept a different line of reasoning.

  22. the ridger says:

    @John Cowan: You say “And insisting on they will piss off the prescriptivists, and insisting on he or she will piss off the people who like simple language. In short: You. Can’t. Win.” I agree – so you have to decide whose reaction you least care about. I write “they” and will continue to do so.

  23. […] more productive Singular they, you, and a “senseless way of speaking”; Lucky Finds for Translators […]

  24. […] I read the post, I read the links in the post, and I felt … well, I felt something. :) I respect Carey a lot. He makes good sense. […]

  25. […] or herself (or similar) would be pedantic; themselves strikes me as awkward here, though I like singular they; and themself is rare, and does not occur to most […]

  26. […] about gender-neutral language generally centre on usage issues that recur frequently: singular they, generic he and man, Ms/Mrs and other forms of address, suffixes such as –ess, –ette and […]

  27. […] and could regain. Grammatically, themself is no worse than singular they, which is no worse than singular you, which is now (but was not always) judged beyond […]

  28. […] alternates between she and he for this purpose. A few writers do, and while I would favour singular they, the alternating style is at least more equitable and inclusive than defaulting to he, as too many […]

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