More about the singular “they”

I participated in an ACES Twitter chat, Your Grammar Question Answered, Tuesday during which we chatted about the singular “they.” One of my co-chatters, @KUBremner, aka Lisa McLendon, noted that the singular “they” can be handy as an epicene — a word that has only one form for both masculine and feminine. So we could use the epicene “they/them/their” in a sentence such as this: Everyone picked up their pencils and began the test. “Their” refers to the indefinite pronoun “everyone.” Because we don’t know everyone’s sex, we use “their,” which sounds less formal than “his or her” and doesn’t carry the stigma of  the prefeminist “he.”

Or you could rewrite the sentence as several chatters suggested.

The singular “they” is not, however, a substitute for “it” when referring to an entity — at least not in written American English. This is an example of an unnecessary use of “they/them/their”: CBS is covering their own backside in a memo banning beasts breasts and buttocks at the Grammys. “Its” works best to refer to a company. (I know some writers and editors will disagree with what I have written. Please feel free to leave a comment if you do.)

The publications I work for do not accept the epicene use of “they.” We use “he or she” and “his or her.”

Even though I understand and accept (to a degree) the epicene “they,” I am perfectly content with not using it. I am toeing the line on my publications’ style, and I am warding off attacks from the ardent prescriptivists.

If you would like to see what else we chatted about in our #ACESchat, here is a Storify put up by moderator Gerri Berendzen. 

The Wikipedia entry on singular “they” gives an explanation and has links to other sources. Language Log has many posts about singular “they” and epicene “they.”

2 Responses to “More about the singular “they””

  1. Ashley

    I was so sad to have to miss this #ACESchat! Personally, I find “he or she” to be far too stilted for most writing, but as an editor and former tutor, I’ve always adhered to whatever was mandated by the powers that be. Using “they” as an epicene is never going to bother me when I run across it online or in other informal venues, however.

    As for using “they” in the place of “it,” I’m with you: it doesn’t belong there. I’m sure it came into use this way because so many businesspeople are trained to refer to their companies as “we” when speaking about it. So when a spokesperson for CBS says, “We’re covering our bases,” it translates to, “CBS is covering their bases.” It’s just one more grammatical mutation to add to the growing list.

  2. Catherine Howard

    What a shame that the publication for which you work does not accept the epicene “they”! Contrary to the opinion of many editors, it is NOT a recent or post-feminist alternative to use of the universal masculine pronoun. According to the New York Times column “On Language” (7/29/2009), we owe the misplaced notion that it is incorrect to an 18th-century grammarian, Anne Fisher, who, although a proto-feminist, proposed the use of “he” instead of “they.” This contravened the prevailing usage of the epicene “they,” which everyone, including the likes of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the King James Bible, had been using for centuries. Fisher’s arbitrary prescription threw many (but not all) grammarians off-track for generations to come, but eminent authors, such as Byron, Austen, Thackeray, and Dickens, simply ignored such an officious rule and continued to use the epicene “they.” As the NYT article concludes, “It’s a shame that grammarians ever took umbrage at the singular they. After all, they gave you a slide. It began life as a plural object pronoun and evolved into the whole enchilada: subject and object, singular and plural. But umbrage the grammarians took…”

    Gabe Doyle, a linguistics specialist and author of the blog Motivated Grammar, has a post offering a multi-pronged defense of the logic behind the use of the so-called “singular they” – including a devastating critique of why it’s not really “singular” and why it’s not even a standard pronoun.

    As you note, the Language Log has many articles about why the so-called “singular they” is perfectly acceptable. One of them gives a useful reference: “For a more complete discussion of the historical issues (both descriptive and prescriptive), take a look at pp. 51-53, 414-416, 662-664, 666-667, 860, 901-903, of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.”

    Since the links I inserted don’t show up in the text above, here’s a list of them: