I’ve been thinking about tackling the contentious issue of the singular ‘they’ for some time. It’s one of those grammar subjects that raises the blood pressure of the pedants and causes doubt in the minds of many. A bit like the Oxford comma or Marmite, either you love it or you hate it. And most conservative grammarians consider that it is just plain wrong (a bit like starting a sentence with ‘and’).
What’s the problem with ‘they’?
In writing sometimes you need to refer to both male and female but make no distinction between the sex. For example, in a job application a form may state: ‘The candidate should answer all questions to the best of his or her ability’. Obviously, writing ‘his ability’ is totally out of the question. In the past, this might have been the norm, but now it is considered to be outdated and sexist. ‘His or her’ is a solution, but it’s a bit awkward and doesn’t look good if it’s used throughout a document. In order to avoid any reference to the possible sex of the applicants the solution is to use the singular ‘they’, in this case in the form of ‘their’: The candidate should answer all questions to the best of their ability.
Is this something new?
There’s no doubt that languages develop and move on; the grammar pedants may argue that this is not always for the better. In recent years, gender-neutral pronouns have been in the news. In fact, the American Dialect Society chose ‘they’ as its Word of the Year for 2015. With the growing awareness of gender-neutrality and sexism the use of ‘they’ rather than ‘he’ or the clumsy ‘he/she’ is becoming more acceptable.
With any grammar query I usually turn in the first instance to our old friend Fowler (Modern English Usage, 2015). In the 1926 first edition, Fowler was, apparently, not keen on the use of they as a singular pronoun: ‘few good writers would flout the grammarians so conspicuously’ (Fowler, 1926). However, the fourth edition has no such problem, citing the fact that the English language has no ‘common-gender third person singular pronoun’ and referring to the clumsiness of the he/she formula. Indeed, the current editor of Fowler points to using they, them and their within the book.
The history of they, them and their
A little investigation reveals that the use of the singular ‘they’ is not as modern as some may have us believe. In fact, the use of they as a singular pronoun dates back to the 16th century. It was used by authors as famous as Jane Austen and Chaucer. Fowler gives a few examples of its use: ‘Now, nobody does anything well that they cannot help doing’ (Ruskin, 1866 in Fowler 4th ed., 2015, p. 815) or ‘If a person is born of a gloomy temper…they cannot help it’ (Chesterfield, 1759 in Fowler 4th ed., 2015, p. 815).
There’s a great discussion of the history of they in this Atlas Obscura article, if you’d like to follow the argument further. Meanwhile, I’d be interested to learn about your preferences. Do you use they in the singular when writing or do you prefer the he/she construction? If you have very strong feelings about ‘they’ then do let your proofreader know, as many of us are now quite happy to adopt it.