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Regardless of how you feel about it, the ‘singular they’ is not wrong

Recently, a proofreader objected to my use of the ‘singular they’ in one of my translations. So naturally, I decided to write an entire blog post explaining why he’s wrong.

Abhorrence and Abjuration

It was a day like any other day. I had just received a translation back from the proofreader and was working my way through it, making adjustments as needed, when I came to a comment that made my brain flash an error message in front of my eyes.

Naturally, I can’t share the actual sentence I had translated (I’ve already had a fight with the Norwegian post office today and I don’t have the energy to deal with being sued for a GDPR breach too), but here’s a similar sentence to give you an idea:

Cats are an excellent way to keep mice out of the kitchen. This can only benefit the chef, as they can focus on their cooking instead of guarding the expensive cheese.”

The proofreader had edited the second sentence to read:

This can only benefit the chef, who can focus on the cooking instead of guarding the expensive cheese.”

Normally, I don’t mind minor stylistic changes, as everyone has their own linguistic preferences. I probably would’ve respectfully disregarded their suggestion and continued on with my work, had it not been for their accompanying comment:

I abhor and abjure the vernacular use of plural pronouns for singular antecedents.

– the well-intentioned but ultimately wrong man proofreading my work

If you don’t know what an antecedent is, don’t worry, I didn’t either before I saw it here. According to Wikipedia (and confirmed by my English teacher mum), an antecedent is “an expression (word, phrase, clause, sentence, etc.) that gives its meaning to a proform (pronoun, pro-verb, pro-adverb)“.

For example: “Jess felt years drop off her life as she read this feedback comment“. In this sentence, “Jess” is the antecedent and “her” is the proform.

In other words, my proofreader was objecting to the use of “they” and “their” (which are often plural) together with “the chef” (which is singular) – aka the ‘singular they’.

Now, I didn’t decide to write this blog post because I’m miffed at the questionable tone of this comment (although I did spend a good ten minutes ranting furiously to my long-suffering friends about it, in all caps), nor because I can’t believe I found the words “abhor and abjure” outside of an eighteenth-century novel.

What made me write this blog post is the fact that when I googled the ‘singular they’, I found that a lot of people are not only upset about it, but equate its usage to someone drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa in sharpie.

This is unfortunate since these people are definitely wrong and the ‘singular they’ is an established, legitimate grammatical feature of written and spoken English. Walk with me.

How to use the ‘singular they’

In English, “they” is a pronoun that typically refers to the third-person plural, with “their” as the third-person plural possessive, and “them” as the third-person plural object.

For example: “The translator and her friends could not believe their eyes as they surveyed the sheer foolery before them.

However, “they” can also be used to refer to the third-person singular when:

a) The gender is unknown or irrelevant: “Anyone can be an ignorant buffoon if they really try…” (Most native English speakers will use “they” in this way without even realising it).

b) The person uses “they” as their pronouns: “Alex was going to their room when they noticed a cat behind them.”

In the last few years, the use of “they” as a nonbinary pronoun has become more and more common. A recent example would be the actor Elliot Page, who released a statement on 1 December 2020 wherein they came out as trans and stated that their pronouns are he/they. Because of this, many people (mistakenly) believe that the ‘singular they’ is a new phenomenon.

However, as Merriam-Webster pointed out when they officially added “they” as a nonbinary pronoun to their dictionary in 2019, the ‘singular they’ has been used as a gender-neutral pronoun for hundreds of years:

[English’s] lack of an exclusive gender-neutral pronoun is a famous deficit, and they has been quite ably filling in for more than 600 years.

Merriam-Webster, widening your vocabulary and history knowledge

Still not convinced? Here are some instances of the ‘singular they’ in use throughout history by some of the most respected writers in the English language.

The ‘singular they’ throughout history

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first instance of the ‘singular they’ is in a story entitled “William and the Werewolf” from 1375: “Each man hurried… til they drew near…

The ‘singular they’ can also be found in Act IV, Scene 3 of William Shakespeare’s “A Comedy of Errors” from 1594: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend“.

However, the real literary champion of the singular they is Jane Austen, who uses it 75 times throughout her books. For example: “To be sure, you knew no actual good of me — but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love“. If it’s good enough for Jane Austen, it’s good enough for you, Mr. Proofreader.

Other writers who used the singular they include Geoffrey Chaucer, Lord Byron, Emily Dickinson, Charles Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and many others. Its prevalence throughout literature can be attributed to the fact that the ‘singular they’ is completely grammatically correct.

To put it bluntly, ‘singular they’-deniers are the flat-earthers of the English grammatical world (and what I wouldn’t give to see that Venn diagram).

A grammatical meme, featuring a still from an old Mitchell and Webb sketch of David Mitchell dressed as a N*zi and asking "Are we the baddies?". The caption on the top reads: "'Singular they'-deniers finding the 'singular they' throughout history". Made by me.

You might be wondering “if the ‘singular they’ is so accepted throughout history, then what happened to make it so stigmatised now”? I’m so happy you asked.

Why not “he” (or “she”)?

You may sometimes see writers use “he or she” or “he/she” as a way to avoid the ‘singular they’.

For example: “Anyone who wants to meet Freddy the Lion should make sure that he or she doesn’t bring his or her ham sandwiches into the enclosure with him or her.”

Not only does this construction make sentences unnecessarily convoluted when they could’ve just used the ‘singular they’, but it harkens back to a time when “he” replaced “they” as the gender-neutral pronoun – an interesting choice, considering that “he” is not gender neutral in the slightest.

Cos “he or she” is only ever said by men who are fully intending on just saying “he” and at the very last second remember that “she” exists

James Acaster, comedian and ‘singular they’ truther (please go watch his set, his delivery makes this joke ten times funnier)

According to Dennis Baron, the use of “he” as a gender-neutral pronoun has its origins in a book on Latin grammar from 1542 written by William Lily, entitled “The Masculine Gender is more worthy than the Feminine, and the Feminine is more worthy than the Neuter”.

The idea of arranging any pronouns in some sort of worthiness hierarchy for any language seems about as logical to me as Jordan Peterson’s idea that humans have a hierarchy because lobsters have one. Then again, Lily was writing in the sixteenth century, and if he had gone a bit mad due to some plague-induced lockdown, then I can’t say I don’t sympathise.

It took a couple more centuries for people to bring the idea of “he” as the most worthy pronoun into English grammar, but by the eighteenth century, “he” was being actively promoted as the more appropriate gender-neutral pronoun and the ‘singular they’ was subsequently condemned.

[Generic he] fit all too neatly with a society that found males more worthy than females, and had no problem with “he” meaning “everyone” except when it came to voting, or having any rights, or being, like, a person.

Dennis Barron, the academic we need but do not deserve

There are plenty of excellent innovations from the 18th century that I’m happy to keep: the piano, the flush toilet, the smallpox vaccination. The ‘gender-neutral he’ is not one of them.

“You’ve” got to be kidding

Honestly, I haven’t been able to find a single argument for the ‘singular they’ being wrong other than “I don’t like it”. If this is you, then you are more than welcome to “he or she” your way through a text as you please – but surely getting mad every time you see other people using the – and I emphasise – entirely grammatically correct ‘singular they’ is just causing yourself a lot of extra stress, and who needs that when we’re in the middle of a pandemic?

(Note: It should go without saying that a person’s pronouns are never up for debate, grammatically or otherwise. Making the effort to use someone’s pronouns takes such little effort on our part but means a great deal to that person. Don’t be an arsehole as well as wrong.)

Furthermore, even if the ‘singular they’ were a new phenomenon, that still wouldn’t automatically make it wrong. Language is dynamic and changes over time. No one bats an eye at “you” being both a singular and plural pronoun, but that was also a change that took place in the seventeenth century.

So, to my fellow native and non-native English speakers alike: don’t be afraid of the ‘singular they’. The purpose of language isn’t to reflect an exclusive social order; the purpose of language is to communicate – and people communicate with the singular they, whether they realise it or not.

As the former Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary puts it:

People who want to be inclusive, or respectful of other people’s preferences, use singular they. And people who don’t want to be inclusive, or who don’t respect other people’s pronoun choices use, singular they as well. Even people who object to singular they as a grammatical error use it themselves when they’re not looking, a sure sign that anyone who objects to singular they is, if not a fool or an idiot, at least hopelessly out of date.

Robert Burchfield, a man who is far too busy to entertain ‘singular they’-denying twaddle

2 replies on “Regardless of how you feel about it, the ‘singular they’ is not wrong”

I wish I could rant as hilariously, eloquently, and well informedly as you do Jess, this is amazing! (and LOVE the meme too) x

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