Dictionary.com

Gender-Neutral Singular They

they

On January 8th, 2016, approximately 300 linguists crammed into a room to vote on the American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year. From microaggression to man bun to emoji with x-rated connotations, dozens of lexical items were debated, but only one could take home the ultimate honor of Word of the Year. This year that title went to they, or more specifically, to the gender-neutral singular use of they.

The current discussion of they touches on two distinct conversations: grammar usage and gender identity. Many style guides instruct editors to never use they with a singular antecedent. By these rules, the sentence “Everyone knows they should eat vegetables” is incorrect because everyone takes a singular pronoun. Instead the sentence should be “Everyone knows he or she should eat vegetables.” However this second option is extremely cumbersome and is generally ignored in less formal environments. This grammar rule also brings up the discussion of gender identity. If a person doesn’t identify as he or she, what is the appropriate (and grammatical) pronoun to use?

While the use of singular they has been contested over the years, it’s nothing new. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and other beloved writers of the English literary canon have been opting for singular they for centuries. So why now? What about the use of they in 2015 inspired a room full of linguists to anoint it with the lofty title of Word of the Year?

In early December, Dictionary.com announced its own Word of the Year, identity, which was greatly influenced by major cultural conversations surrounding gender identity. Increased awareness and openness in discussing gender identity has ushered in language-related questions: What is a person’s preferred pronoun? Is it grammatical to use they to refer to an individual who is outside the gender binary? What honorific do you use to show respect to a person who doesn’t identify as Mr., Mrs., Miss, or Ms.?

Perhaps one of the most high-profile discussions of they came from Bill Walsh, a copy editor at the Washington Post, when he announced in December that the Post’s official style guide now allows the use of gender-neutral singular they. He called the use of they “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

Not all style guides have made this shift. In a New York Times Magazine piece from January 2015, writer Dashka Slater notes that even though the article’s subject Sasha Fleischman is transgender and prefers they over he or she, the New York Times style guide does not accept this usage. Slater writes:

Telling Sasha’s story also poses a linguistic challenge, because English doesn’t offer a ready-made way to talk about people who identify as neither male nor female. Sasha prefers “they,” “it” or the invented gender-neutral pronoun “xe.” The New York Times does not use these terms to refer to individuals.

That was January, and a lot can change in a year. By December 2015 the New York Times masthead editor Philip B. Corbett explained the occasional use of the gender-neutral “courtesy title” Mx. in the publication, saying that it was not yet part of the style guide, but that “…[t]hings are changing fast in this area.” Dictionary.com added a definition for Mx. as part of a May 2015 update, along with other words related to gender identity including agender, bigender, and genderfluid. Additionally, updates to the entries for they, themselves, and their are currently underway and will be published later this year.

The linguists have voted, but will gender-neutral singular they actually catch on? As a pronoun for gender nonconforming individuals, they seems more poised to take off in a mainstream way over another option like ze, because they is already a part of all English speakers’ vocabularies. There’s less of a barrier to entry, especially with major publications like the Washington Post officially allowing its use as part of their style guide. As linguist Geoff Nunberg recently pointed out (no doubt with a twinkle in his eye): “everyone uses singular they, whether or not they realize it.”

Past winners of the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year include the hashtag #blacklivesmatter and the construction because X. Read about other nominations for the 2015 Word of the Year here.

34 Comments

  1. Jo Jo -  October 25, 2016 - 10:50 pm

    Why not lose the denotations of he and she so that the existing pronouns can be used without worry. I would prefer if I was referred to as he but I’m not about to deck someone for using she if said person desires to.

    Reply
  2. Bec -  September 3, 2016 - 4:21 am

    Those contesting the use of singular they are forgetting that the English language is constantly evolving. Would you rather we speak Middle English in 2016? The notion of genders besides male or female has existed for thousands of years, with evidence dating back to Ancient Egypt. The reason so much of this has been erased was due to the historical spread of strict Christianity across the globe. Those still opposing the use of singular they and the notion of genders other than male or female are the ones who truly need to grow up and adapt.

    Reply
  3. combativeThinker -  September 1, 2016 - 6:19 pm

    It seems that for every concession we grant to these tumblrite freaks to make them go away they demand three more. Now linguists must bow down to political correctness by saying that referring to an individual as “they” is grammatically acceptable when, in fact, it is not and never will be.

    Reply
    • benched -  November 6, 2016 - 8:37 pm

      I don’t tumblr, but I agree; “They” has a lot of baggage as an existing, hardwired plural pronoun, but I have a suggestion. You heard it here.
      Let’s invent a logical new pronoun for such cases. I propose De. Long E. Try it out. He, she and de were here. I gave him, her and dim a chance.
      The thing is neither his, hers, mine or dimes.
      Yeah, three more words, but it is an easy solution. Eg: “Pat always makes me laugh with those jokes of dimes . De keeps to diim self.”

      Reply
      • Nipperskipper -  December 5, 2016 - 3:35 pm

        I love it. Lets make this happen.

        Reply
  4. kevin -  July 14, 2016 - 4:42 am

    i got a good sentence
    their course is over there And they’re tasty.

    Reply
    • you -  October 18, 2016 - 9:45 am

      great, another there their and they’re sentence, as if there aren’t enough already

      Reply
  5. AmericanNationalist -  July 13, 2016 - 1:57 pm

    Leftist garbage. There is no valid argument for “gender identity”. You are what you physically are. “They” is plural, and only plural. The singular is “he”, “she”, or “it”, the latter impolite to apply to a person. I’ll add this: If I catch the improper person in a restroom with my wife, I’ll personally remove that person by whatever means necessary.

    Reply
    • combativeThinker -  September 1, 2016 - 6:05 pm

      I’m in total agreement. I actually laughed out loud at the sheer absurdity of people asking others to refer them as “xe.”

      Reply
      • you -  October 18, 2016 - 9:46 am

        I always type out hir

        Reply
    • Patricia Lawrence -  October 26, 2016 - 6:54 pm

      I identify as a liberal, but agree 100% with this comment. Just came back from a department meeting and was told that I must allow my students to use “they” for the singular because of gender diversity. I don’t care what you want to call yourself, but as a grammarian (called a Nazi by my colleagues), I refuse to do this.

      Reply
  6. Maria Lourdes E. Guinto -  April 21, 2016 - 4:43 pm

    Confuse language teachers and learners worldwide! You are not the only ones using English to communicate. Let they stand for its plural use. ZE or XE the LGBTs!

    Reply
    • Koro -  December 4, 2016 - 10:12 am

      I believe there was a huge news about a Canadian professor being forced to call students by their gender preferred pronoun; he refused to do so and I think like something ridiculous like sentenced to jail happened to him, on the grounds that he was somehow violating the rights of the students. Totally absurd, and this whole discussion on gender identification and term usage just made me remember that. Super weird.

      Reply
  7. Job -  February 3, 2016 - 5:39 am

    Well,sound good

    Reply
  8. simphiwe -  January 26, 2016 - 7:15 pm

    yes

    Reply
  9. Oddity from Space -  January 24, 2016 - 4:17 pm

    Yes! I love using “they” in such contexts as described in the article!

    Reply
  10. Claudette Morris -  January 23, 2016 - 11:25 am

    Every time I see “they” being used as a singular pronoun, it makes me cringe. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to this. I’m retired, but would really love to get into the business of editing/proofreading, so I’ll have to adapt to new thinking, I suppose.

    Reply
    • Veronica E -  October 14, 2016 - 8:54 am

      “Adapt to new thinking” . . . what a profound (and seemingly rare) concept. I love it! :)

      Reply
  11. June Edvenson -  January 20, 2016 - 1:18 am

    Finally someone has dealt a decided note – for the language’s sake, not for gender discussion’s sake: I couldn’t be happier that when someone pauses, not knowing the gender of the person discussed, they can confidently use ‘they’!

    Reply
    • Nikogriego -  January 25, 2016 - 6:40 pm

      Well June, you have managed to slip in the plural pronoun after the singular antecedent:

      “I couldn’t be happier that when *someone* (singular) pauses, not knowing the gender of the person discussed, *they* (plural) can confidently use ‘they’!.”

      Perhaps you did this intentionally. However, I rather agree with Claudette Morris’ comment, who writes that she cringes when confronted with this paradox.

      Reply
      • Larus -  January 27, 2016 - 9:52 am

        It’s less of a paradox and more a case of common usage finally deciding to patch an aggravating hole in our language. It makes communication more efficient and convenient to have the option of a pronoun for individuals of unknown/indeterminate OR non-binary genders.

        Reply
      • ausGeoff -  February 5, 2016 - 11:20 am

        Uh… June actually said that she couldn’t be happier that people use the term “they” when unsure of the subject’s gender, so why shouldn’t she use it herself? She didn’t slip it in unwittingly; she fully intended to use it.

        Reply
  12. Cause -  January 17, 2016 - 6:00 am

    Okay then

    Reply
  13. Jamie -  January 17, 2016 - 4:55 am

    With several billion people on Earth, not everyone is a special snowflake. That’s okay. Why does seemingly everyone feel the need to be recognized without actually doing anything? There is no longer the need to adapt, now you can just excuse your shortcomings instead of trying to improve. As far as this gender identity trend, I don’t dismiss the need to acknowledge and assist people who consider themselves transgender, but the rest is seriously just a trend. Bigender? Genderfluid? Suddenly an influx of college aged kids have gender identity issues? Yeesh. Okay sure.

    Reply
    • Abby -  January 19, 2016 - 6:11 pm

      Oh honey, finding a term that you can relate to is not making yourself special. It is not a trend, it is because our generation is far more accepting than any generation before us (including your generation, sweetheart). Being bigender or genderfluid or agender is not “excusing [their] shortcomings”. It is people like you who cause kids not to be able to be accepted. People like you who slander the movement of acceptance and screw everyone else over.
      Bless your poor little unaccepting heart,
      the accepting generation

      Reply
      • Jaime -  January 24, 2016 - 4:59 am

        Why do you refer to me as “sweetheart?” Surely your inability to explain the necessity of these new gender terms isn’t being shrouded by personal bias. No one will see things your way when you patronize them. Unless of course you called me “sweetheart” with affection. Well, aren’t you sweet? :)

        Reply
      • Oddity from Space -  January 24, 2016 - 4:14 pm

        I don’t believe in any of these “LGBTQIIA+” stuff. As “harsh” as it may seem to many people, people are male or they are female. Sex and gender are one and the same. And Jamie has an exceptional point. You, however, are being extremely patronizing. You wouldn’t have to be patronizing if there was a grain of truth in anything you said.

        Reply
        • Larus -  January 27, 2016 - 9:53 am

          The best part about things being true is that it doesn’t matter if you believe in them or not.

          Reply
      • Tino -  January 24, 2016 - 9:45 pm

        SLAY, ABBY, SLAY!!!!!! Love people like you! (They) always bring warmth to my genderless heart <3 keep doing what you're doing my guy B)

        Reply
      • ausGeoff -  February 5, 2016 - 11:30 am

        Those who address unknown (to them) individuals as “honey” or “sweetheart” inevitably engender a feeling of nausea within me. It reeks of
        condescension and totally negates the user’s opinion of their opponent’s claims. To infer that one is of superior intellect or behaviour guarantees a loss in any debate. The more smug one is, the harder one falls.

        Reply
      • OTC(Out of The Closet) -  February 8, 2016 - 6:24 am

        Amen Abby

        Reply
      • Naomi -  February 24, 2016 - 6:24 am

        Your post is indeed patronizing and the tone is passive aggressive. If you want to expand people’s understanding you are not going about it in a productive way IMHO. Far more constructive than introducing terms that alienate people of all generations, would be to have a universal acceptance that “he” and ‘she’ includes all he’s and she’s no matter where they stand on the gender spectrum. For the minority who truly do not identify as either one or the other then ze or xe makes sense. The singular ‘they’ in this context is confusing and ambiguous especially when you get to including plural ‘they’ in the same sentence. Language is supposed to aid communication not turn it into some mental obstacle course. I am, however, gobsmacked at the explosion in numbers of younger people who apparently are gender conflicted and get really upset
        if they are misgendered. I totally accept that for some this is a real issue and causes heartache that I would not wish on anyone. For the others who are wearing it like a badge to make themselves stand out or become part of their ‘brand’, FFS get over yourselves.

        Reply
    • Oddity from Space -  January 24, 2016 - 4:18 pm

      Oh my goodness you have practically stolen the words from my mouth. Kudos to Jamie!

      Reply
    • Larus -  January 27, 2016 - 9:58 am

      I would hardly call gender variance a shortcoming. Repurposing an existing pronoun hardly makes anyone a special snowflake, any more than allowing people to use ‘he’ or ‘she’ preferentially.

      It sounds to me like you are the one having difficulty adapting.

      Reply

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