Each must make their own decision on the singular “they”

theyIn English, there are things you can count on . . . like the fact that “they” is plural. Except it isn’t always. Let me see if I can convince you.

As my coauthors and I were writing The Mobile Mind Shift, one of them came up with this central definition:

A mobile moment is a point in time and space when someone pulls out a mobile device to get what they want in their immediate context.

Conceptually, this was exactly on target. Grammatically, I told them, it was questionable. The person who wrote this tended to accept my judgment on issues of language, so they crafted a rewrite:

A mobile moment is a point in time and space when someone pulls out a mobile device to get what he or she wants, in context.

Today, I want to say I was wrong. There are plenty of cases where you can treat “they” as a singular. And it will improve the language.

Here’s the issue: what pronoun do you use when referring to someone whose gender is unknown or indeterminate? “He or she” is awkward and draws attention to itself. As you can see in our mobile moment definitions, it gets even worse: we could have written “what he or she wants in his or her immediate context” (yuck!). I’m not interested in exotic suggestions for new gender-neutral pronouns or clunky constructions like s/he or s/him or his/her. We already have a perfectly good alternative. We just have to get use to accepting “they” as a singular. And whether you realize it or not, you’re already partway there. Which of these do you prefer?

Proposed usage: “Everyone should take their seat.”

Sexist alternative: “Everyone should take his seat.” [Sorry, ladies, everyone in mankind knows that “he” stands in for both sexes. Or at least it did until about 1970, when we started treating women as actual people.]

Feminist alternative: “Everyone should take her seat.” [Why can’t we alternate male and female pronouns? But what if it’s a meeting of venture capitalists or republican presidential candidates with a whole bunch of men and only one woman? I’ve been doing this in my writing, but it gets awkward sometimes.]

Grammarian’s lumpy alternative: “Everyone should take his or her seat.” [And open his or her smartphone, and start his or her email app. Must we?]

And no, this isn’t right either. “Everyone should take their seats.” [Everyone is singular, not plural. You wouldn’t say “Everyone are well educated”, you’d say “Everyone is well educated.”]

This is not just for collective words like “everyone.” It’s also for any situation in which you don’t want to specify the gender. Earlier in this post, I wrote “The person who wrote this tended to accept my judgment on issues of language, so they accepted my rewrite.” That’s because I had two coauthors, a man and a woman, and didn’t want to identify which one I meant.

It’s also useful for the increasingly common situation in which a person does not identify with a specific gender. I’m not talking about trans people like Caitlyn Jenner or Chelsea Manning or Lana Wachowski or Laverne Cox, all of whom identify as women. AP style states that in these cases you should “Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.” So they’re all “she.”

I’m talking about extending this dignity to people who identify as genderfluid, or agender (not identifying with a gender). Respecting their identity means you must not refer to them as “he” or “she”. My children have several friends like this; my son will often say something like “They expect to be part of our party tonight,” where “they” refers to an individual who isn’t a “he” or “she.”

If you find the existence of such individuals offensive or refuse to believe they exist, that is your problem. They exist, and they deserve the dignity of appropriate pronouns just like the rest of us. And “They arrived a bit early” (referring to one person) comes to sound pretty natural after you’ve hung around such folks for a while.

Ben Zimmer wrote a nice piece on this in the Wall Street Journal in April. Grammarians aren’t as opposed to it as you might think. As he says:

When pressed on whether “they” could serve as a singular pronoun, my fellow lexicographers and I pointed out that it already has done so for about seven centuries, appearing in the work of writers from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Jane Austen.

Merriam-Webster associate editor Emily Brewster turned the question back to the audience. The only thing standing in the way of singular “they” becoming more acceptable? Copy editors who take it upon themselves to edit out the usage, she said.

From this point forward, here’s how I’ll treat the issue:

  • If possible, rewrite the sentence to avoid the construction, but only if there is no loss in clarity.
  • Proudly use “they” to refer to singular people whose gender is unknown or unimportant and for individuals who do not identify as a specific gender.

Soon, you won’t even say “huh?” anymore as you read such sentences. This usage is coming. Get used to it.

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  1. Just blogged about this very issue. Sometimes proper grammar can be distracting, as in this case where you must choose a gender specific pronoun in order to be correct. I use context as the deciding factor. In many contexts, a singular “their” works better.

  2. Not a serious suggestion, but I love to fantasize that “it” is the appropriate pronoun here.
    Everyone should take its seat.
    The programmer passes its code to the tester for verification.

  3. Love your use of “yuck.” I used it all too often when editing documents with my Corp. Communications team at Sony until the HR police stepped in, pointing out I could be more “sensitive” to their feelings.

  4. Josh, thanks for this post. I am sharing it with my colleagues in the School District of Philadelphia. In October (“Bullying Prevention Month”) I met a savvy group of LGBTQ students who shared their often upsetting experiences in school. One politely corrected me when I used “his or her” and asked me to use “they.” This was news to me. I was disturbed that my use of “standard English” caused needless hurt. Acceptance of this usage won’t happen overnight but at least I know what to say going forward. Thanks again.

  5. … or just use ‘Take your seat,’ so as to avoid any gender slip-ups, with multiplicity free of charge! 😀

  6. Wow, three years later and still clunky. I wonder if we ought to abandon the last of gender in (modern American) English? Grammatical number serves a purpose; gender less so.