You’ve probably come across the singular pronoun “they” recently. Perhaps it was in the Washington Post’s recent addition of it to the paper’s style guide. Perhaps it was in this BBC article about gender-neutral pronouns. Perhaps it was in this viral Tumblr post comparing singular “they” to singular “you.” Wherever the source, singular “they” has become more popular in 2015 than ever before–so popular, in fact, that it’s Quartz’s (unofficial) nomination for Word of the Year.
Let’s clear something up right away. Using “they” to refer to a single person isn’t new, but words of the year rarely are. Rather, this usage has been simmering for many years, finally bursting onto the scene this year with a newfound prominence. And just in time, too. Language can and should keep up with cultural shifts, including developments in society’s understanding of gender. While some holdout grammarians and copy editors might squirm, it’s become increasingly clear that our current pronoun palette simply isn’t sufficient. Luckily, we already have a perfectly good word at the ready.
We must remember that language is not meant to be static—and never has been. In fact, the first written citation of singular “they” dates all the way back to the 1300s. Here’s a selection from Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Prologue (c. 1395):
And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,
They wol come up…
It’s not just Chaucer, though: the use of singular “they” continues throughout the centuries. Here it is again in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, from 1594:
There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend
“I cannot pretend to be sorry… that he [Darcy] or that any man should not be estimated beyond their deserts; but with him I believe it does not often happen.”
“To be sure, you knew no actual good of me—but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love.”
In fact, singular “they” turns up so often in the history of English literature that it seems a bit absurd there’s any controversy about it at all. How did we get the idea that there was something wrong with singular “they”?
In the late 18th century, grammarians with a serious case of Latin-envy decided that when you didn’t know the gender of someone you were referring to, the best option was to use “he.” The idea was that since Latin didn’t have a singular “they,” English shouldn’t either. The proposal for “he” as a substitute arises from a similar (sexist) logic as that which led to the use of “mankind” to refer to all of humanity. (Latin also didn’t have a lot of other perfectly fine English things, such as split infinitives or sentence-ending prepositions: you can blame these folks for most of your grammar angst).
Although lots of well-regarded writers (Dickens, Eliot, Wilde, and many others) kept using singular “they,” the proposed alternative—ostensibly the ungendered “he”—did become relatively common. And importantly, the generic “he” started being recommended by people with the power to influence others’ language, such as copy editors, English teachers, and writers of popular style guides like Strunk & White.
But “he” has never been a perfect solution: pretty much as soon as it started taking the place of singular “they,” people began to wish for a truly gender-neutral alternative, as early as Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1808 and Otto Jespersen in 1894. But the big backlash started in earnest the 1970s, when Kate Swift and Casey Miller published first essays and then books linking words like generic “he” and “mankind” to sexism.
But what to use instead? Language reformers and non-binary linguistic activists alike have invented a plethora of new words like ey, eir, em (the Spivak pronouns) and xe, xir, xem, both with a variety of spellings. But novel pronouns have had a hard time catching on. Other people use “he and she” or “s/he,” but these options get clunky fast, especially when you need to repeat them, and they overlook people who don’t identify with “he” or “she,” a group that’s also become more visible in 2015. (The New York Times, for example, quietly decided to allow “Mx” as a gender-neutral title in pieces this year—as did Oxford Dictionaries and the British Government.)
The increasing visibility of genderqueer and non-binary folks who prefer to be referred to as “they” has pushed this acceptance along even faster—if you’re writing a news article about a they-user, either you use complicated syntactic tricks to avoid writing pronouns at all, or you simply follow their preferences. And then once you’ve accepted singular “they” in such cases, why not also let it rescue you from clunky phrasing when gender is unknown, nonspecific, or irrelevant?
The good news is the mainstream seems to finally be catching up to what sensible grammarians and excellent writers have been saying for ages: there’s just no good reason to condemn singular “they.” And more importantly, there are plenty of reasons to embrace it.
Google Trends shows us that searches for “singular they” were up all through 2015, with the highest spike yet occurring in April 2015, probably owing to Ben Zimmer’s column in the Wall Street Journal. Zimmer was reporting on the annual meeting of the American Copy Editors Society: “Now, it seems, those who have held the line against singular ‘they’ may be easing their stance.” Searches for “singular they” spiked again in September 2015, this time probably caused by several colleges adding support for gender-neutral pronouns.
Ultimately, it’s popular support that really matters. Language is changing constantly: the English of Shakespeare’s day doesn’t sound like our English today, and the English of 500 years from now will have changed even further. It’s a grassroots, open source, democratic process—and in this case, it’s clear that people are voting for singular “they.” For example, over 100,000 people have interacted with this Tumblr post pointing out that plenty of pronouns and other words have changed during the history of English. Singular “you,” once a radical innovation, gradually displaced “thou/thee” (for that matter, if you’re the Queen or Helen Mirren, you can even get away with singular “we”).
Going further back, “they” itself is a relative newcomer to English, arriving in Middle English from an Old Norse word meaning “those.” (A relic of the Old English third plural pronoun is found in ‘em, as in “go get ’em.” It seems like the apostrophe stands for a dropped “th” in “them,” but it’s actually from a dropped “h” in “hem,” just like we sometimes drop the h’s in “his” and “her.” But “hem” sounded too close to “him,” so people gradually started using the Norse word instead.)
Historical references aside, perhaps the best way to push singular “they” into large-scale circulation is just to keep using it. The internet is way ahead of the game here: Facebook has been using singular “they” for almost a decade now when users decline to state a gender or, more recently, indicate that they actively prefer being referred to as “they.” And it’s become generally common online to refer to other users as “they” (such as when replying in a comment thread) when you don’t have any cues about their gender.
More official sources have also approved of singular “they.” The Canadian Government, for example, specifically endorses it. And John McIntyre, copy editor at the Baltimore Sun, has been letting in singular “they” for several years now, and he says that no one’s ever complained. It’s not approved by The Economist’s style guide, but the language columnist there endorsed it in 2014.
In fact, even that most conservative of sources, edited books, have seen increases in singular “they.” Using Google Ngrams, a corpus of published books, we can see increases in the past few decades from both a search for “themself” and a comparison of “everyone has their own” versus “everyone has his own.” While many of these uses are probably subconscious (even authors that officially condemn singular “they” often use it elsewhere), there’s at least one book with a mainstream publisher that uses singular “they” as a conscious style choice. Its author blogged: “There was no back-and-forth: They said this was a point of view they hadn’t considered before, and they accepted it entirely, and agreed to re-insert all of my singular ‘they’s.”
Liberal Tumblr and conservative copy editors may not agree on a lot of things, linguistically speaking. But in 2015, they may finally have found some common ground.