We just wrapped up Pride month for the LGTBQIA+ community. As editors, we sometimes field questions about “proper terminology” when it comes to addressing inclusive and sensitive language, especially for minoritized communities like the LGBTQ+ one. Aside from the question of which version of the acronym is most appropriate to use, the most common question has to be about pronouns and gender inclusivity.
One of the specific questions people have is about the use of the singular they. Are they grammatically correct to use if they’re only referring to one person? How do you conjugate them then—as plurals or singulars?
While the situation is a little fraught, we’re going to take you on a little historical tour that will help make the answers clearer.
The Singular They Has Existed Since the Middle Ages
Many people argue against the use of they/them pronouns to refer to an individual. They say it’s not grammatically correct. After all, she and he are singular pronouns. They is a plural pronoun. That means it refers to multiple people. Unless you’re a multi-personality system, then these grammar pedants argue you should not use “they.”
Leaving aside that English doesn’t have a gender-neutral singular pronoun (and many of these same pundits don’t want to accept neopronouns), they don’t really have a leg to stand on here. Why?
They used as a singular pronoun is attested from the 1300s. Yeah, that means all the great writers, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, probably used singular they.
Better yet, you can probably think of a time when you, a relative, or a friend used singular they. “Look at the way that person is driving their car! They have no idea what they’re doing!”
That would be a pretty embarrassing mistake for one of our so-called grammar pundits to make.
Where Did the “Gender-Neutral” He Come From?
They has worked as a singular gender-neutral pronoun in English for well over seven centuries at this point. Chaucer and his buddies used it, and we still use it (often unintentionally) today.
So, how did we ever get it in our heads that we couldn’t use they as a singular gender-neutral pronoun?
The answer likely comes back to the same group of people who brought you grammar hits like “don’t split an infinitive” and “don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” These “non-rules” were added to the English language in the 1600s and 1700s. That was the point when a focus on “proper spelling” and good grammar began to emerge. There were a few reasons: more people were learning to read and write, people were compiling the first dictionaries, and so on. (Yes, everyone who struggles with spelling will be happy to know that, until the seventeenth century, we kind of just spelled everything however we thought it sounded. No wonder English spelling is so tough!)
So, this group also became grammar prescriptivists. Many in this group thought English should be modelled on Latin, which is where we get the idea that we shouldn’t split an infinitive. Fun fact: you can’t split Latin infinitives, because they’re a single word. It is literally impossible. English, by contrast, uses two words to make a infinitive, so you can and most definitely are allowed to split them!
This group also brought us the gender-neutral he for formal writing. The pronoun was already in use that way, but it all but replaced the use of singular they around this time. You’ve probably seen this in older works: “If the student is concerned with his grades, he should consult with his teacher.” It lingers in words like “mankind” to mean the whole of the human species.
So, for around three hundred years or so, people were told to use the pronoun he as the gender-neutral singular. You might recognize that he is a gendered pronoun. Feminism in the twentieth century felt it was pretty silly to use language that left out around fifty percent of the population, treating them as an afterthought or addendum.
He or She or S/he
The next stop on the inclusivity train was the use of he or she and s/he. As women pushed for equality and more recognition, they pushed back against sexist language. You can’t simply assume a lawyer or a doctor is he. To always refer to these professions with the pronoun “he” is pretty sexist. Add in that many people would use “she” for nurses or secretaries, and you’ve got a whole bunch of sexism.
The remedy for this was he or she. Now, we’re not assuming someone is a man when we write about them as a hypothetical third person. Of course, he or she is extra words and a bit clunky. So some writers and publishers preferred s/he as a solution. The thought is this allows you to read “she” or “he” as you will (or even both).
Other solutions, such as alternating the use of she or he also exist, but they can be difficult to implement.
Did You Just Assume That Hypothetical Person’s Gender?
Now we find ourselves revisiting the push for more inclusive language. Even if s/he or she or he is better than he alone, it still suggests that everyone cleaves to the Western gender binary, identifying as either a man or a woman. Some people do not. Take, for example, Indigenous Two-Spirit individuals. There may very well be a word or pronoun in Indigenous languages that encapsulates what we might call a “third gender,” but English doesn’t have anything similar.
What to do? If we’re talking about a real person, of course, we could just ask! If we’re speaking in the hypothetical, though, there’s no one to ask. There’s a certain amount of hand-waving you can do here: if the person is hypothetical, does it matter what their gender is? You can use he or she willy-nilly and no one can get mad, because these are hypothetical people! Who cares if we assume their gender?
This can be alienating to your readers, however, and it also allows for sexism to continue seeping through. (See my note above that doctors almost always get “he” and nurses, “she.”) And, as we’ve seen, English does have a gender-neutral third-person pronoun: they.
We’ve used it that way for hundreds of years. We were using it as a gender-neutral, inclusive pronoun before Enlightened Englishmen in the 1700s decided he was somehow gender neutral and could include everyone. Despite their best efforts, we still use they as a gender-neutral pronoun!
There is absolutely no reason to avoid using they as a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun.
What about the Grammar of Singular They?
This is another question that comes up when you introduce the singular they. What about the grammar?
They is usually considered a plural pronoun, so it conjugates like one. This can throw people off when they’re using it to refer to a singular person. Should you still say “they are”? Or should you now conjugate it as “they is”? “They is” sounds very funny—incorrect—to the English speaker’s ear, but “are” is a plural conjugation.
To sort this out, let’s look at how verbs conjugate to agree with pronouns:
Now take another look at how you conjugates. If it followed singular rules, we should see “you is” under the singular and “you are” under the plural. But you takes “are” in both cases.
You Kicked Thou Out of the English Language
The word you is unique in English, because it’s a plural pronoun that completely replaced a singular one. You know how Shakespeare is all thee/thou/thine?
Yeah, thou is our singular second-person pronoun. Today, though, if you ran around saying, “Hello, how is thou?” people would probably wonder if you just got out of a time machine or hit your head or something.
At some point in the history of our language, thou was overtaken and replaced by you. That’s why English uses you for both singular and plural second person. (It also leads to unique problems, where people try to craft us a plural second-person pronoun—ya’ll, yous, and so on—when what we need is thou back.)
Despite taking over the singular second-person pronoun, though, we’ve never adjusted how you conjugates. We treat it as a plural in both singular and plural usage. That’s why we say “you are going to the store” whether we’re talking to one friend or five of them. (And this is why English is impossible!)
The likely reason for this is that “you is” just sounds wrong to most English speakers’ ears, even if it would be completely grammatically correct if we mean singular you. Thus, we just continue to use the plural for both senses.
Some people argue that we may need to adjust how they conjugates in the singular, but I’d disagree. You has been doing just fine in the last few centuries. I’d argue it’s also unlikely to get traction—much like the plural version is standard for you, it’s likely going to stay the same for they, because it just sounds right.
The Case of the Reflexive
There is one exception to the rule here, and that has to do with the reflexive pronoun. As we know, reflexive pronouns end with -self:
This is the only form where you has a separate singular and plural formation: yourself for the singular and yourselves for the plural. (This is, consequently, the one time we know if someone is talking to an individual or a group without having it spelled out.)
Thus, we could make an argument for transforming the plural themselves into the singular themself. Indeed, this is already happening in some circles. For the moment, many authorities are reluctant to accept “themself.” We’re thus seeing the editing world split: some accept themselves as the only correct form for singular they, while others accept themself.
Only time will tell if this gains traction, but the example of you suggests it just might. One thing is for sure, though, and it’s that the singular they was already here—and here to stay. Don’t be afraid to adopt it and make your writing more inclusive and less 1700s-style sexist.