Even the staunchest grammarians are now accepting the singular, gender-neutral “they”

Language, like its tools, must change with the times.
Language, like its tools, must change with the times.
Image: Reuters/John Vizcaino
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In the ongoing war over pronouns in the English language, Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, is something of an iconoclast.

The professor has become the spearhead for an anti-political correctness movement after he refused to use gender-neutral pronouns on campus. His personal campaign has won him both criticism and fans. Now he has taken his argument for what he calls “free speech” and others call hateful discrimination to YouTube, where he has attracted hundreds of thousands to his own channel and libertarian chat shows.

But despite Peterson’s niche popularity, most leading grammarians have already settled the issue of whether “they” is acceptable as a singular pronoun: It is. “They” can be used not only to avoid the wordiness of “he or she,” but also as a singular gender-neutral pronoun, as in: “Susan is our pharmacist. They are also a neighbor.”

The list of grammar gatekeepers who have let the singular “they” in, locking the door behind it, has been growing rapidly. The American Dialect Society elevated the singular “they” to “word of the year” in 2015. The Washington Post officially added it to the paper’s style guide the same year. The Oxford English Dictionary’s online edition is unequivocal. “Sentences such as ‘Ask a friend if they could help’ are still criticized as ungrammatical,” it says. But it adds: 

Nevertheless, in view of the growing acceptance of they and its obvious practical advantages, they is used in this dictionary in many cases where he would have been used formerly. In a more recent development, they is now being used to refer to specific individuals (as in Alex is bringing their laptop). Like the gender-neutral honorific Mx, the singular they is preferred by some individuals who identify as neither male nor female.

John E. McIntyre, a copy editor for the Baltimore Sun, would suggest that the singular they doesn’t even require a shift in thinking, because it has never been technically wrong. In a brilliant video posted online last fall, McIntyre, whose bowtie and seersucker suit belie his anti-stickler stance, says English language grammarians have ignored the precedents in usage of the “they” when they mourn the epicene third-person singular pronoun. The usage dates back to Chaucer, and appears in the work of brilliant writers, including Jane Austen and George Orwell, he explains.

It was 18th-century grammarians who installed “he” as the gender default for the third person singular as a grade school rule, one feminists began protesting in the 1970s. In the space of a couple of generations, “he” as a stand-in for all of humanity has come to feel almost as anachronistic as “thou.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary, which has courageously waded into politics with pithy responses to malapropisms in the news during the US presidential campaign and after the election, notes that the transition from “they” as a plural-only pronoun to one that can work with a singular antecedent is not unlike the singular “you,” which followed the same course. The editors add that “they” is “vastly preferable” to the linguistic solution used in 17th century British estate laws, which referred to a non-binary subject with the dehumanizing “it.” Agreed.

There are a few holdouts on this issue, including editors at the Economist and at the New Yorker, whose copy editor, Mary Norris, has explained that she will continue rewriting sentences that use “they” for “he or she” when there’s a problem with pronoun agreement and numbers.

But in a follow-up video, Norris addresses the issue in the context of gender identity and expression, and there she suggests that grammar is most correct when it’s most respectful. (A lesson she apparently learned through personal experience.) Her conclusion: “I think you should call people what they want to be called. Period.”