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.
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?